After the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, God suggested to Moses that the people be replaced by Moses’ own descendants:
“Do not stop Me as I unleash My wrath against them and destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation.” (Ex. 32:10)
Moses, however, rejected this offer. The Talmud records the argument that Moses used in defense of the Jewish people:
“Master of the Universe! If a chair with three legs cannot endure Your anger, certainly a chair with only one leg will fare no better!” (Berakhot 32a)
What was this “chair with three legs”?
Moses was referring to the founding of the Jewish people through three spiritual giants: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What was the special heritage that the Avot (the forefathers) passed on to their descendants?
The Avot succeeded in bequeathing their unique traits to their descendants. Even if later generations should abandon the path of their righteous fathers, the imprint of that spiritual greatness remains, and their failings may be rectified.
The extent of the influence the Avot had on their descendants was a function of the intensity with which those holy traits permeated their own souls. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had internalized these characteristics so profoundly that they became an eternal heritage for all generations.
It is possible that the three special characteristics of Israel - kindness, modesty, and compassion1 — are inherited from the Avot, trait one from the tzaddik who had made that particular quality the focus of his personality. Abraham was legendary for his acts of kindness. Isaac was distinguished by his modest and inward nature. And Jacob acquired a high level of compassion, as demonstrated by his great love for his children.
How did worshipping the golden calf change this?
The sin of the golden calf was diametrically opposed to these very traits. This sin involved not only idolatry, but also bloodshed (the murder of Chur) and licentious behavior (“they rose up to make merry”).
Murder is clearly the opposite of compassion; licentiousness is the opposite of modesty. And idolatry is the opposite of compassion. The fact that we care about others is rooted in a sincere belief in God’s Oneness, which leads us to recognize that all of creation should be united in helping one other for the common good. Idolatry, on the other hand, boosts the traits of division and self-gratification.
After the sin of the golden calf and the resultant loss of those holy traits inherited from the Avot, Divine justice decreed that the Jewish people deserved to be replaced.
But Moses, the faithful shepherd, defended his charges. How could he be sure that his own descendants would retain their spiritual heritage any better?
Despite the unique level of perfection of Moses’ soul, the inheritance of the Avot had a clear advantage. Each forefather focused on and perfected a particular trait, which he then transmitted to his descendants. Moses enjoyed a harmonious balance of these characteristics. But by the very fact that they were blended into one personality, these qualities lacked the potency of a trait that is at the very core of a great personality.
The spiritual traits of the forefathers were marvelously united in Moses, like a chair with one leg. The original heritage of the Avot, however, was far more robust, supporting future generations like three distinct legs.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 143-144)
1 See Yevamot 79a.