The argument of coercion
וישב משה אל-יקוק ויאמר אנא חטא העם הזה חטאה גדולה ויעשו להם אלהי זהב: ועתה אם-תשא חטאתם ואם-אין מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת
Moshe returned to Hashem and said, “Please, this nation has transgressed a very great sin and has made for themselves a golden idol. Now, if you will carry their sin…and if not erase me please from the book that You have written”
A mere forty days after a national revelation of G-d and hearing the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, presuming that their leader Moshe had died, the Jews decided to create an idol for themselves in the form of a golden calf. This is considered one of the greatest betrayals that the Jews committed towards their G-d. After taking them out of Egypt and freeing them from slavery, which had happened only a few months earlier, they sought to commit idol worship. Moshe returned from the mountain to find them worshipping this calf, and knew he had a tough job ahead of him: convincing Hashem why the Jews didn’t deserve to be destroyed for their sin.
In his dialogue with Hashem, Moshe’s approach seems to be the opposite of what would be common sense. It would have made sense to minimize the Jews’ crime, rather than aggrandize it. Yet, Moshe calls their sin a חטאה גדולה, a very great sin. Why did he do this? Also, in the second half of his statement, after asking if Hashem would forgive their sin, he says ואם אין, literally: and if nothing, then erase me from your book. It would have made more sense to say ואם לא, and if not. What is with this choice of phraseology?
Chazal make a tremendous statement about the sin of the golden calf: לא עשו ישראל את העגל אלא ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה, the Jews only worshipped the calf to give an excuse to those who would later sin and want to repent. Meaning, in reality it wasn’t befitting the Jews at that time to commit such a sin, given their spiritual level. As we said, they had just witnessed the Exodus and experienced a national revelation of the Creator of the universe. What happened was as if it was against their will, so a later person could never claim there’s no room for repentance. If the Jews could be forgiven (which they were) after such a heinous betrayal, there’s still hope for the rest of us. This is what Moshe was recalling by describing their sin as “very great”. He was saying that it is too abnormal, too unimaginable, that the Jews could have done such a crime willingly. It must have been coercion, and if so, they should be forgiven. By forgiving them, it will give later generations hope that their repentance would be accepted. If they’re not forgiven, we’ll be left without an explanation for how the Jews could have been coerced to commit such a crime.
Moshe added to his argument by approaching from the other side, using the phraseology of אין, nothing. He was suggesting that in fact it’s not so shocking that the Jews did this. This is because Chazal have some teachings that seem to imply that they weren’t on such a high level. When the Jews were at Mount Sinai and proclaimed נעשה ונשמע, we will do and we will listen, some say it was simply lip service. Rabbi Meir goes so far as to say when they were proclaiming allegiance to Hashem, their hearts were really towards idol worship. According to this then, it makes perfect sense why they made a golden calf. This is why Moshe said ואם אין, and if it’s nothing, meaning if the Jews are not considered on such a high level, then please erase me from the book you have written. What did Moshe mean by this request?
Throughout the whole Torah, the phrase וידבר יקוק אל משה לאמר, and Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, דבר אל בני ישראל, speak to the children of Israel, appears many times in various forms. Moshe was saying to Hashem, if the Jewish people are destroyed, these verses won’t make any sense. There’s no nation for Moshe to instruct. The Torah will essentially become useless, as it will be a book of laws for a people that don’t exist. Therefore he requested that his name be removed from the Torah. We see from here that Moshe didn’t merely mean to erase his name. Rather, he was referring to all the statements directed towards the Jews, as well as all the mitzvos. This essentially erases the entire Torah. This says that destroying the Jews means destroying the Torah. The Torah is Hashem’s will, given over to Man. If there’s no Torah, it would have made the whole act of creation purposeless. Moshe was therefore arguing that Hashem had no choice but to forgive the Jews, despite their heinous crime.
This was Moshe’s intention with his double-edged argument. If they are on such a lofty level, this sin was not done willingly and so they must be forgiven. This will give future generations hope that they can repent and be forgiven. And if they are not on such a lofty level, then the Torah will have to be erased. That is untenable, so they again must be forgiven. With this approach, we now have a new understanding in Hashem’s response: מי אשר חטא לי אמחנו מספרי, only those who sinned against Me will be erased from My book. Really, both of the claims Moshe made were correct. The majority of the Jews were on a lofty level, and it isn’t considered that they sinned לי, to Hashem. Rather, they were coerced in order to teach the power of repentance. However, those who did sin לי, are the minority that were trying to deceive Hashem from the beginning regarding their devotion. These were the ones who always intended to do idol worship, not the majority of the nation who had remained devoted to their creator.
 Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 32:31-32
 Exodus loc. cit.
 See Exodus 31:18-32:6
 The gemarra in Arachin 15b points out that the three major sins that a Jew has to give their life for, as well as the sin of loshon hara, all share in common the description of גדולה. They are idol worship (here, חטאה גדולה), murder (גדול עוני מנשוא) and illicit relations (ואיך אעשה הרעה הגדולה הזאת). For loshon hara it says לשון מדברת גדולות. By using this description, Moshe was simultaneously recalling the worst sins possible to commit
 Avodah Zarah 4b
 I heard from Rav Tzvi Berkowitz that you can’t say that their free will was taken away. Rather he feels it means the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, was given more power over them than would have been normal. They wouldn’t have fallen for such a temptation, if not for this increase of influence
 Rashi ad. loc.
 This is hinted to in Moshe’s choice of wording. He starts off his request for forgiveness with the word ועתה, and now. Bereishis Rabbah 21:6 says the word ועתה can imply repentance.
 Shemos Rabbah 42:8; See also Yalkut Tehillim § 820 and Yalkut Yeshaya § 508 for more midrashim understanding the Jews as trying to deceive Hashem regarding their devotion
 He quotes Psalms 78:36 as his source
 Shemos Rabbah 47:9
 Why then did he speak this way? Clearly due to his humility
 See Rashi to Genesis 1:1 that the Torah starts with בראשית, which is to be understood as בשביל התורה שנקרא ראשית, that the universe was created for the Torah
 Exodus 32:33