Yesterday was the last day of the semester for seniors at Beth Tfiloh. As I told them, what they lost this past year in academics they gained in lessons of perseverance – which is probably going to serve them better in life than any academics. It was a rough year for students and for teachers, so I figured I’d go easy on them for the final. Instead of an exam, I let them present a project on any contemporary Jewish topic. One group gave a presentation on exorcism and I am still trying to figure out how that is a contemporary topic, but hey, I am just happy they made it to the end of the year. 


One group delivered a thoroughly researched presentation on the topic of vaccines, mask-wearing, and health in general from a Jewish perspective. They quoted the Rambam, some of the most prominent scholars through the ages, all the way through Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the end of the presentation, one of the students turned to me with the utmost sincerity and asked, “I just don’t understand. All these commentators take an extremely cautious approach when it comes to all matters of health. They unanimously agree that we should listen to the majority of doctors and that we should accept scientific findings, why then are so many Haredi or Ultra-Orthodox Jews disregarding the medical establishment?” What she didn’t ask me but could have, is “Why is it that in Haredi communities in Israel, 1 in 73 adults over 65 years old died from Covid? 1 in 73?! Why is that if you go to Lakewood, a city that is predominantly a Yeshiva community, no one is wearing a mask? I just don’t understand.” 


This is a question I have heard over and over and over again these past months, not just from my student but from so many. Now some of you are smiling to yourselves and saying, the reason they are not wearing masks is because they don’t help. The reason some are not getting vaccinated is because the vaccine is dangerous, or at least unproven. I could not disagree more strongly, but it’s really not the point. The truth is, the official leadership in these communities, Agudath Israel to name just one, was extremely vocal in their encouraging their followers to wear masks and abide by all state laws and CDC recommendations. This is not only about Covid, it is a general question up time and time again: We often look towards our co-religionists – I am not going to say ‘on the right’ because that implies that they are more religious when that is not always the case – but our co-religionists who are identified as Yeshivish, or Chassidic, or Haredi, and we just cannot understand what they’re thinking. Things that they say or do are just beyond our comprehension. And it’s that confusion/ dismay/ shock/ indignation that I’d like to address today through the prism of the sin of the Golden Calf with 3 points:


  1. Psychologists have noted that our religious orientation can be plotted on a continuum between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. On the one side of the continuum are people who connect to their faith for purely external factors; good company, it provides social support, they like the food, etc. On the other extreme, we have those who are connected to their faith for the faith itself; it is about G-d or the specific beliefs of their faith. Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic. 


But somewhere in the middle of the continuum you have people who connect to their faith, not for self-serving purposes, but they are connected through other people. It is a role model that inspires them that brought them into the faith. It is a teacher who has the most magnetic and uplifting personality, and an individual is drawn after them into a religious life. It’s a community of people whose way of life is so appealing. It is not self-serving or extrinsic but it’s also not intrinsic. This individual’s faith revolves around another person or a group of people. 


This semi-extrinsic connection is very common for Baalei Teshuva and converts. The path for many who are not born into the faith often involves meeting an individual or a group of individuals who are so inspiring that they say, I want a piece of that and so they follow those people into Observant Judaism.

In some ways, this is the story of the Jewish People leaving Egypt. There was no religious philosophy that they could connect to at the time and they knew very little of G-d. What they had was an incredibly humble and powerful man who they placed their complete faith in; Vaya’aminu baShem uv’Moshe avdo. And so when he went missing, when that individual who they placed all their trust in did not return after 40 days, they were lost; they had a crisis of faith. 


The Jewish People, explains the Ramban, did not look to make a replacement for G-d. The goal, or at least the initial goal, of the Golden Calf was to replace Moshe because without him they had nothing. Their religious orientation revolved around a person. So what happens when that person disappears? Or, what happens when that person is involved in a scandal? Or, what happens when that person makes decisions that seem ludicrous to you and completely lacking in judgment? 


What happens is you have a crisis of faith; you build a Golden Calf. 


The sin of the Jewish People at this juncture was not the building of the Golden Calf; it was the semi-extrinsic mindset that led them to do so. It was that the Jewish People did not progress past that first stage of being inspired by others and graduate to connecting to our faith through G-d alone. And that’s a flaw that many still struggle with. 


Lesson #1 of the Golden Calf is that we need to serve G-d and not serve people. We all start on this continuum in different places; some join or choose to engage in Judaism for the most self-serving reasons, others because they want to be like someone else. That’s very normal and okay. We cannot stay in that one place. But we need to grow to a point where our connection to our faith is independent of any individual or community. Judaism is a faith that revolves G-d. Not a community, and not any individual person. That type of Judaism is a small step away from a Golden Calf. To paraphrase Rabbi Berel Wein, “Don’t connect to Judaism through the Jews.” Our religious identity needs to revolve around G-d. 


Which brings me to a closely related second point. A question asked by all the commentators is what in the world was Aharon thinking? How could he assist the Jewish People in the building of an idol of sorts?

Some commentators suggest that it was damage control (Rav Hirsch), others creatively suggest that he led them on to weed out the true idolators in their midst (Rav Saadia Gaon). But the Abarbanel says, all these justifications notwithstanding, Aharon was dead wrong. Maybe there were rationalizations but nothing that could any way excuse his behavior.

This is such an important message, one that we do not hear enough, certainly not enough in Haredi circles; humans are fallible. People, even great people, make terrible mistakes.

Some people are disturbed by this idea; how could a person so steeped in Torah knowledge, so wise in so many areas, how could they make such a basic mistake? Personally, I am bothered by the question; how could we assume that a mortal, as great as they may be, is infallible? Great people could make great mistakes.

This past week I was on a video call with Rav Asher Weiss, one of the leading Halachic authorities of our generation. He has been outspoken and extremely forceful in promoting public safety. He has not only answered the most pressing questions of the Covid era in real time, but he has been advocating mask-wearing, vaccines, and a generally cautious approach in line with the medical establishment.

Now you have to appreciate that Rav Asher Weiss is not a shy person; he is outspoken and can be very fierce. So when one of my colleagues asked him the same question as my student, namely, how do we look at our co-religionists who are not taking Pikuach Nefesh seriously, I braced myself. I assumed he was going to rip into these people who were not following medical guidelines.

Instead he said as follows: (paraphrasing) “They are dead wrong for not abiding by these rules. But, great people can make great mistakes.” And then he said something that surprised me. “We need to stand up for what is right but we also need achdus now more than ever. We need to disagree but we need to do so with love and with respect.” 

And this is the third lesson we can take from the saga of the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down the mountain, he sees the Jewish People completely lost; dancing around an idol, according to our Medrashim, engaging in licentious behavior, with blood on their hands from having murdered someone who dared stand up against them. Moshe breaks the Luchos – they are undeserving. He kills those who are most guilty. And then – he turns around and goes up the mountain and he begs G-d to spare His children. He not only prays, he offers all of his merit in the world to come.

What’s going on here? They’re idolators?! They’re adulterers?! They’re murderers?!

Yes, but they are also G-d’s children. Our brothers. Our sisters. And we need achdus right now more than ever.

So yes, disagree and disagree loudly. But don’t hate. Don’t attack people, attack ideas. Don’t fan jumping flames. We need to extinguish these vicious fires. If you want to take this one step further and take a page from Moshe’s playbook – daven for them. Pray for their wellbeing. It may be hard to have a conversation right now, but we can always seek out their wellbeing.

We still struggle with failed leaders and failed communities and we will continue to do so. Let’s define our connection to our faith through Hashem, through His Torah, and not hang our Jewish identity on one human being or one community or the other. As human beings they are fallible. But that does not mean we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater; Aharon the priest can still become a High Priest and we can still respect people who make mistakes. And lastly, we are brothers, and we are sisters, and we share one Father. It’s hard, I struggle with this, but it’s necessary. The world and the Jewish People, need, now more than ever, more love, more understanding and more respect.

  לְמַעַן אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ.
לְמַעַן בֵּית ה׳ אֱלוֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ.
ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה׳ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם.