Learning Education Strategy From The Failure Of The Golden Calf
Rabbi Andrew Shaw
Chief Executive, Mizrachi UK
I was having a conversation with someone earlier this week.
We were discussing the various strategies that had been employed by the Jewish community over the last 20 or 30 years in terms of engaging with the unaffiliated. What can we do, and have we done to make sure people who aren’t connected, aren’t involved – get involved?
The two strategies basically break down into two areas.
First, you have the community strategy, symbolized by organizations such as shuls, schools, the United Synagogue, Tribe and Bnei Akiva, working within the community, obviously Mizrachi would be part of that grouping.
The second grouping is the outreach movements, organisations such as Aish and JLE, which work in a powerful way with students and young professionals to inspire them.
Both have the same goal. Both are trying to inspire and wake up Jews, mainly young Jews, to the beauty of Judaism and the beauty of a Jewish way of life.
The question is – is one better than the other?
Obviously, you probably can see from my journey through Bnei Akiva, Tribe, the US and now Mizrachi that I subscribe much more to the community strategy. I will try and explain why by a fascinating idea in this week’s Parsha.
This parsha is one of the most depressing.
We begin the Parsha with Hashem commanding the Jewish people to be counted. However, then comes the tragic story of the Golden Calf.
Something doesn’t makes sense.
How could it be that Moshe goes up Har Sinai after Hashem has spoken to the entire Jewish people, given us the Torah, has helped us cross Yam Suf, has done the 10 plagues for us, redeemed us from Egypt – all of that. Yet, just a few weeks later we are dancing around a Golden Calf!
How could they do that? How could they fall from such a height? We are told that the prophecy of the lowliest servants at yam suf were at the level of Yechezkel ben Buzi. It was a remarkable spiritual experience. How can you go through that and then a few weeks later you’re dancing around the golden calf?
The answer that’s given, can relate perfectly to some of the strategies used successfully and unsuccessfully in the modern world.
Rabbi Tatz explains the idea of the redemption from Egypt as stage one of a process. Stage one is where it’s all given to you, it’s an incredible experience but you did nothing for it. Stage two is the hard work and then stage three is the final perfect realization of what you’ve done, you have the inspiration but it’s due to your hard work.
The problem is so many times in life people get to stage one, they get blown away but that’s when they stop. You can have the most amazing shabbaton, the most amazing Israel trip, Poland experience but if that’s all it is, just one experience that blows you away, is it really going to last?
The Golden Calf happened because the incredible miracles that had occurred to the Bnei Yisrael were just an experience. They had not internalized yet what it was to be Bnei Yisrael, to be Bnei Torah, to commit their lives to Torah.
Rashi holds that the Mishkan was built because of Chet Ha’egel (Golden Calf), and not the order as shown in the Torah.
What is the idea of the Mishkan? What is the idea of building a home for Hashem? It is about a daily commitment.
אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ הָֽאֶחָ֖ד תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר וְאֵת֙ הַכֶּ֣בֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה בֵּ֥ין הָֽעַרְבָּֽיִם:
The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. (Shemot 29:39)
Every single day you bring a korban, every single month there are services for Rosh Chodesh, every single year there are the Chagim which the focus is the Mishkan, which of course today is the shul and the home.
The Judaism that Hashem wanted us to keep was every single day. The idea that we had an incredible sound and light show which blew us away as the Jewish people, but yet we danced around the Golden Calf, was because experiences without internalisation don’t last. They don’t last unless it’s backed up with solid education day after day, month after month, year after year.
I remember many years ago when I used to take Stanmore teens to Israel for eight days in February half term. It was the most amazing trip, we ran it for seven or eight years in a row.
It was fantastic and the most powerful thing for us was of course Friday night at the Kotel. We had the whole week in Israel building up to it. We davened Friday night at the Kotel dancing with the soldiers, then went up to have dinner overlooking the Kotel on one of the balconies of the Yeshivot of the Old City.
Later on we went down again, to sit by the Kotel at 10 o’clock at night, all alone, just us with the stones, it was just magical.
I remember one time talking to one of the madrichot and she said to me. “How can we do this? How can we take these kids and put them on the height of spiritual ecstasy during this trip, isn’t it irresponsible because they’re just going to crash when they get home”?
I remember the answer that I said to her then, “It would be wrong if we were letting them go back and that was it, but we are going back with them”.
The whole idea of what we were doing in the Shul at the time and what I think shul is about, is that you are in Israel together, you will be inspired together and the following Shabbat where are you? You are back in your community together.
There is continuity. You can take the inspiration and you can ground it and you can grow with it and that to me is the key.
Any strategy has to inspire people, but then we have to carry on that connection. It can’t simply be a one-off, one-offs don’t work because it fades.
We learned to our despair that it didn’t work with Chet Haegel, it was not enough. We had not yet, as a Jewish people, learned the daily life of a Jew. They were still relying on the incredible experiences rather than the day-to-day.
It is a lesson that we can all learn from. I think everyone in the world of outreach and education is doing the best they can, but we have to realize unless we can communicate to people an ongoing connection with Judaism, not simply one trip or one weekend, it is ultimately going to end in failure.