We encounter one of the seminal events in the history of the Jewish people in this week’s Parsha. After being liberated from the Egyptian bondage and being present for the Sinai experience, the Jews build a Golden Calf. Volumes have been written on this subject but we will discuss one seemingly small part of the story.
Now it came to pass when he (Moses) drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, that Moses became angry, and he threw down the tablets… (Ex. 32:19)
Here’s some context. Moses had spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah and then the Almighty informed him that the people were participating in the idolatry of the Golden Calf. He went, as requested, down the mountain and saw the people dancing around the Calf. It wasn’t just the sight of the idol that caused such an extreme reaction from Moses, it was also their rejoicing- “partying”-around it. This sight was the catalyst that caused Moses to throw down and shatter the Tablets.
Rashi (1040-1105) comments that Moses decided to break the tablets after making a logical deduction:
He (Moses) said [to himself]: If [in regard to] the Passover sacrifice, which is [merely] one of the commandments, the Torah said: “No stranger one may eat it” (Ex. 12:43), [now that] the entire Torah is here, and all the Israel are apostates (i.e. estranged), should I give it to them?
There is a question on Rashi; if Moses’ response was a logical deduction, why didn’t he break the tablets the moment G-d told him what the people were doing? One can’t get a more reliable source than G-d and therefore he knew it was true. Why did Moses wait until he came to the bottom of the mountain to break the tablets?
The answer is that an event perceived by the senses has a stronger effect than second hand information-even if the information is trustworthy and comes from the most reliable source. After G-d told Moses what was happening, he obviously believed it, due to it coming from the most reliable of sources, but even that wasn’t enough to penetrate his being to the point that he felt the need to react in such a severe way. Witnessing the tragedy of the event was the stimulus needed to convince Moses to break the tablets.
Rav Elya Chaim Meisels (1821-1912) was the Chief Rabbi of the Lodz, the second largest city in Poland at the time; the Jewish population numbered 160,000 people, comprising more than a third of the industrial city’s population. His insightful mind and ability to solve the complex issues of the day are legendary, but he is equally known for being devoted to raising money for the poor, widows and orphans of his city. During one particularly freezing winter he went to visit a prominent member of his community, a banker who served as president of the community council. He knocked on the door and was greeted by the butler, who wasn’t expecting this esteemed visitor. He say him standing outside in the bitter cold and immediately invited him to come inside for a hot tea.
Rav Elya Chaim declined and asked him to call his employer (the banker) to the door.
When the banker heard the Chief Rabbi was waiting for him, he rushed in his evening jacket to greet him. Upon seeing his distinguished visitor standing in the freezing cold, he said, “Chief Rabbi, please step inside. I have the fireplace going and my servant will prepare a hot tea for you. There is no need for you to wait outside.”
“It is fine,” countered Rav Elya Chaim. “I won’t be long and talking here is fine; why should I dirty your home with my snow-covered boots?”
By this time, the banker was in a dilemma. He was freezing. The bitter Polish winter wind was blowing into his house-and his bones He did not want to close the door and talk outside in the cold, yet the Rav refused to come inside.
“Please, Chief Rabbi, perhaps you are not cold, but I am freezing. I don’t mind if your boots are wet. Just please come on in.”
Rav Elya Chaim remained standing in place. He began talking about the plight of some poor families in the community. “Please, I beg you, tell me what you need. I will give anything you ask. Just come inside.”
With that, Rav Elya Chaim finally acquiesced. He entered the house and followed the community leader to the den, where a well-lit fire heated the room. Then the Rav said, “I need firewood for fifty families this winter. It has been particularly cold this year and the need is great.”
The banker smiled. “Of course, I will commit to supplying the wood; you know I always give tzedakah. But why did you make me stand outside?”
“My dear friend,” smiled Rav Elya Chaim, “I know you always give but I wanted to make sure you felt the bitter cold these people will have to endure if they won’t be able to heat their homes. I knew that a few minutes of freezing cold would give you a different perspective than an appeal made while you were enjoying the warmth of your fireplace.”
For Moses, experiencing the people’s fervor for the Golden Calf was the necessary spark to stimulate him to take action; the banker needed to experience the subzero Polish winter. So many Jews are not only distant from their Jewish roots and heritage, they are even hostile to it. Exactly how to remedy or even address this phenomenon is a subject of Jewish communities throughout America deal with but few have suggested that Jews engage in authentic Jewish experiences-such as Shabbat. When self help gurus, personal or corporate trainers talk about the importance of electronic detachment one day a week, they are hailed as innovators but the reality is that millions of Jews do that every Shabbat. I have seen this many times; people spend hours engaging in great conversation, eating great food, and connecting to people and finally feeling free to engage without the bother of having to check their phones or laptops. Some women discover a new kind serenity by simply lighting Shabbat candles each week, others find it is the only time their families sit at the table together.
Studying about the Jewish religion has merit but for most it will not be a catalyst to action. One needs to have authentic Jewish experiences to really know and understand what Judaism is all about. Shabbat is just one area of the Judaic encounter but there are countless other opportunities; the main thing is to give it a shot.
What Jewish experience are you willing to try?
[Sources: Rashi 32:19 from Shabbos 87; Maharsha ibid; Mussar HaTorah (Majesty of Man), based on the Mussar discourse of Rav Henach Leibowitz]
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