“Why should Egypt be able to say that You took them out with evil intentions, to kill them in the mountains and wipe them from the face of the earth?” (Shemot 32:12) Only forty days after experiencing the Divine, the Jewish people had built a golden calf, violating the very essence of revelation and rendering it meaningless. Their fate seemed sealed as G-d told Moshe, “do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them” (Shemot 32:9).
Moshe defies this explicit directive from G-d, managing to “convince” G-d to change His mind by invoking a series of arguments including the one cited above, questioning what the Egyptians might say. Moshe argued that it would be a desecration of G-d's name—apparently even worse than that caused by the building of the golden calf—to let the Egyptians have the “last laugh” as they watched their former slaves being destroyed.
However, a close reading of Moshe's argument reveals a more subtle plea. Moshe was concerned lest the Jewish people be killed specifically “in the mountains”. What difference would it make if they were killed in the mountains, the valleys, the desert or at sea? Surely the place of death is irrelevant to Moshe's argument.
"And G-d said 'I will be with you...when you bring the people out of Egypt you will worship the G-d on this mountain" (Shemot 3:12). Apparently leaving Egypt and worshipping G-d is not quite enough—rather the Jewish people were to worship G-d on the mountain, the same mountain where G-d was now planning to destroy the people.
A mountain symbolizes the climb towards a goal. Scaling a mountain takes great effort and the path is never smooth. A mountain is an immovable object that can only be conquered by hard work and determination. Judaism demands not only that we worship G-d, but that we worship G-d on the mountain, always striving higher. This is true both individually and as a nation. Abraham was told to "take your son, your only son, the one you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah and bring him as an offering on one of the mountains that I will designate to you" (Breisheet 22:2). The Jew must be willing to climb great heights to reach G-d, a climb that oftentimes is filled with much sacrifice.
"These will stand to bless the people on Mount Gerizim...and these will stand to curse on Mount Ebal" (Devarim 27:11). Mountain climbing is a risky business. At times people try to scale heights that they are not yet ready for and suffer severe setbacks. The climb must be slow and methodical and may require years of training. As we ascend our mountain we must take care to rest at each successive plateau, adjusting to our new heights before moving higher.
Had the Jewish people died in the desert, the reaction of the Egyptians would not have mattered. But if the death of the Jewish people was to be at the mountain as they journeyed to G-d at Sinai, there would have been severe ramifications. True, Moshe argued, they had stumbled badly, so badly that they fell off the mountain. But their desire in building a calf was to "make for us a god" (Shemot 32:1). They desired closeness to G-d and to die on that mountain would permanently desecrate the name of G-d. Was not the entire purpose of the plagues to make known the name of G-d? To kill a people for seeking G-d, even if mistakenly, would deter all others from attempting to climb the mountain.
Sexual immorality, slandering the land of Israel, complaining about meat, lacking faith in G-d, requesting a return to Egypt are all valid reasons for punishment. But please, Moshe argued, or shall we say demanded, do not punish the masses of Jewry for seeking, however mistakenly, to come closer to G-d. Doing so would only drive all away from G-d.
"G-d refrained from doing the evil that He planned for His people" (Shemot 32:14). We must make every attempt to climb the mountain towards G-d. To do so properly invariably involves risks and potential setbacks. But without risks there is no reward. May we see great reward from our efforts.