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The people sinned with the Golden Calf. Three thousand people who worshipped it were slain by the Leviim Shmos 32 (28).

Then Moshe says to the remainder Shmos 32 (30)

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the LORD; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.”

Moshe admits the sin to Hashem (31)

Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold.

And asks Him to forgive them (32)

Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!”

What makes Moshe think that Hashem will forgive them? There is no evidence on the part of the people that have gone through any of the stages of the repentance process.

And indeed there seems to be little forgiveness (34, 35)

Go now, lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall go before you. But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins.”

Then the LORD sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.

  • I heard a "drash" from a few rabbanim indicating that when G-d initially said to Moshe "Leave me alone so that I will destroy the people", this was a hint that Moshe should pray for them. Thus, when Moshe did that, we already see that Hashem forgave them - at least in part. He didn't destroy all the people. So, in fact, there was already indication that Moshe felt that Hashem would forgive them. – DanF Feb 20 at 21:32
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I asked the Magid Shiur at the Chumash shiur which I attend. He suggests that sometimes a person sins and immediately after realises and strongly regrets his sin (kicks himself - so to say). That could have been the response of the people. Moshe seeing this intense and immediate regret assumes that Hashem will forgive them.

  • Then why do so few show up at מי לה' אלי – Double AA Feb 21 at 21:12
  • Good point! I could offer an answer that there is a difference between regret and taking up arms to kill the malefactors - but your question is better than my answer. (Bli neder, I'll ask him next week.) – Avrohom Yitzchok Feb 21 at 21:19
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1) According to the Ibn Ezra the prayer (32, 11) of Moshe (וַיְחַ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֔ה ) was how Moshe asked for forgiveness for the Jewish people.

וזאת הפרשה היתה ראויה להכתב אחר וישב משה אל ה'. ואין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה.

And this parsha should be written after “Moses went back to the LORD” (32, 31) and there is no historical order in the Torah narrative.

This prayer makes no mention of repentance and argues from the disgrace to Hashem's name (= reputation) if He would annihilate them (G-d forbid).

2) If the verses are in chronological order, a similar argument can be made. The key aspect of Moshe's request for forgiveness of the people is (32, 32)

וְעַתָּ֖ה אִם־תִּשָּׂ֣א חַטָּאתָ֑ם וְאִם־אַ֕יִן מְחֵ֣נִי נָ֔א מִֽסִּפְרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתָֽבְתָּ׃

Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!”

So it seems that the premise of the question is wrong.

Moshe does not ask for forgiveness for the people based on their repentance. He either asks on the basis of the reduction of the Hashem's reputation or on the basis that Moshe does not want to be included in the Divine narrative if he cannot save the people.

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