In the exchanges between Moshe and God after the sin of the golden calf, we discover the special nature of their relationship.
In immediate response to the sin of the golden calf God, claiming the nation has “quickly turned away from the path”, gives Moshe an offer he can’t refuse. We both know this nation well, He said; you ask “Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled”, and immediately it is written “Moses’ anger was kindled”, I complain “they are a stiff necked people” and you admit “you are a stiff necked people”.
Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.
After the long hardship of the dessert, God wants to give it all up, leave it all behind and start anew: for Moshe this could be an opportunity of a lifetime: his “old partner” inviting him to embark on a new path, a path that might - who knows - lead him into the promised land. But Moshe seemingly ignores the compliment, the likes of which no man has ever heard or shall ever hear in the future and answers God with direct and firm response:
Moses pleaded before the Lord, his God, and said: “Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say: ‘He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth’? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil [intended] for Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever'”.
And miraculously, with ease that most likely surprised Moshe himself, God accepts:
The Lord [then] reconsidered the evil He had said He would do to His people.
How did it happen? What convinced God? Was he not aware in advance of Moshe’s impressive arguments?
Moshe did not spare his criticism from the nation, and admits they have “grave sin”. Moshe uses the same gentle but painful expression during his bewildered addressing of Aharon his brother; and even when standing before God, he does not try to diminish the severity of their actions, which causes him to momentarily “crack” and cast the Luchot. He may have given up hope for the nation, and even Aharon is not reprimanded outright by Moshe, as to not disrespect his older brother. But towards God Moshe feels a higher degree of closeness, and that is what allows him - perhaps even compels him - to present before God an explicit moral demand.
Had Moshe accepted God’s offer, he would be failing as a leader; taking advantage of the nation’s trust, in their time of hardship, for the sake of his own advancement. But beyond his commitment as devoted emissary of Am Yisrael, a commitment no less important stood before him: the commitment to his “old friend” his companion.
The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak to his companion.
It would be impossible to say were it not so written: God actually “gives in” to man, like an ordinary human would to a friend.
Commitment does not summarize the duty of a true friend. In times of crisis, when man wants to give up and surrender, to crash blindly in to his friends arms and retire from the cruel race of the world - his friend must places a mirror before him, and force him to stand up to reality. To remind him of his duties and abilities, that might have been forgotten; to worn about the harsh consequences of such a surrender; and finely to name those who are dear to him; who need him, and put trust in his aid.
I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst [even] if they are a stiff necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession.
Throughout this story Moshe will go on appeasing God, and will continue to request permission to come nearer and gain deeper knowledge of his beloved God - with unmatched subtlety and awe that, but also with firmness and bravery. From within the depths of crisis, Moshe will lead the nation to new channels of knowledge of God, not for the sake of his personal advancement, but from the power of his love for his brothers, his devoted leadership and above all - his loyalty to his God.
In contrast to the “stiff neck” actions of the nation, which each of them refers to as “your nation” like a couple of bickering parents, the connection between God and Moshe is for us a symbol and example of the connection between man and his God, and that between man and his friend. A connection of support and listening, but also of demanding and commitment, which holds the power to overcome the anger and disappointment and renew time and again the age old covenant.
And He said: “Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the work of the Lord how awe inspiring it is that which I will perform with you”.