A Great Winter Experience for Wealthy People
After being liberated from Egypt and witnessing 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)
Moses had spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai and then the Almighty told him that the people were participating in the idolatry of the Golden Calf. When he saw the people dancing around the Calf, it wasn’t just the idol that Moses saw, it was also their rejoicing— partying—around it and that was the catalyst causing him to throw down and shatter the Tablets.
Rashi comments that Moses made a logical conclusion.
He reasoned, if regarding the Pascal Lamb, which is merely one of the mitzvot, the Torah states “No stranger may eat it” (Ex. 12:43), now that they had made themselves strangers (i.e., by forming and worshipping an idol and then partying in front of it how) how could they partake in any other part of the Torah. Why should I give it to them?
Why didn’t Moses 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 he 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, but even that wasn’t enough to affect him to the point that he felt the need to react so severely.
R. 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, which was more than a third of the city’s population. Although his ability to solve the complex issues of the day are legendary, 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 banker who served as president of the Jewish community council. He knocked on the door and was greeted by servant, who immediately invited him from the bitter cold.
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 to greet him. Upon seeing his distinguished visitor standing in the freezing cold, he said, “Chief Rabbi, please step inside. The fireplace going and we will give you some hot tea for you.”
“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 and the bitter Polish winter wind was blowing into his house. He did not want to close the door and talk outside in the cold, yet the Rabbi 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.”
R. Elya Chaim remained standing in place and began talking about the plight of the 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, R. Elya Chaim finally acquiesced. He entered the house and followed his host to the den, where a well-lit fire heated the room. Then the Rabbi 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 R. 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 moments of freezing cold would give you a different perspective than an appeal made while you were enjoying the warmth of your fireplace.”
Cerebral knowledge rarely provides the catalyst for change. Moses needed to experience an event and so did the banker in Lodz, but how does this apply to 21st century Jewry? So many of our Jewish brothers and sisters are not only distant from their Jewish heritage, they are even hostile to it. Exactly how to remedy or even address this phenomenon in its entirety is too complex to speak about now, but one suggestion is to have people engage in authentic Jewish experiences. 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 week. They spend time with people, engaging in meaningful conversation, eating great food, and connecting to people. They feel, finally, free to engage without the bother of having to check their phones or laptops. Some women discover a new kind of serenity simply by lighting Shabbat candles and others find it is the only time their families sit at the table together. The meaning and positive emotions imparted from these experiences can only emanate because of the experience, not simply by reading about it in books.
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 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)]