May 21, 2024
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Building Spiritual Muscles

One of the most treasured parts of my week is learning parsha with my ninth grade Ma’ayanot students every Friday. Every week, as we explore the timeless messages that emerge from the text and the stories in the weekly portion, I am inspired by the search for meaning that is so abundantly and unapologetically a part of the life of a teenager. It has remained a truism in the nearly three decades of my teaching: Teens are naturally poised to find meaning, there is a seeking spirit and a deep desire to connect that is developmentally primed and I feel lucky every day to be present and part of these precious moments. Sometimes it’s just two words, an unusual reference, or a recurring theme that invites us to build new insights using our lived experiences and considering, most importantly, the life-lessons that Hashem has offered us in the Torah. This practice of reading closely, listening carefully to each text, each context and to each other is not only meaningful for the moment but is also vital to sustaining a long-lasting spirituality. It’s an example of the meaning-making experiences that are necessary to build the spiritual muscles that we need for a lifetime.

I’m sharing this with you not only so that I can give context to my love for learning parsha with my students and for writing this “Chinuch Reflections” piece. Instead, I’d like to suggest that in Parshat Ki Tisa we come face to face with the alternative and unseemly side of seeking spirituality and meaning-making. Where instead of the regular practiced and thoughtful prodding approach that delves into the demands of living a Torah life, aspires to construct a Torah weltanschauung that is full of meaning and seeks opportunities to build meaning-making experiences with others, we may fall prey to this “need for connection” and for a “hit of inspiration” in other ways that are in fact destructive to sustainable spirituality. Sometimes, what is a truly beautiful yearning for spirituality goes awry and morphs into another most unattractive human characteristic: The demand for instant gratification and the frenzied “need” for immediate resolutions, the ancient version of today’s quick-fix culture. Was that at the heart of the Cheit HaEgel?

In the days that followed Har Sinai, when the glory of the encounter with Hashem surrounded Bnei Yisrael with an overwhelming sense of inspiration and kedusha, we find they experienced a precipitous fall. As they await Moshe’s descent from on high, they are grasping for leadership and direction and seemingly sliding toward idolatry and losing faith:

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ׃

As many mefarshim suggest, it is hard to imagine that the generation that experienced so many miracle, within days of standing at the foot of Har Sinai, would be so fickle as to abandon their faith in Hashem and revert back to idolatry, even though on the pshat level that certainly seems to be the case. “ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ—Let us make a god who will lead us.”

Some point to the fact that they focused on missing Moshe—כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ׃—indicates a misplaced faith! They mistook the role of Moshe Rabbeinu and believed that they needed a divine intermediary to achieve a closeness with Hashem. With Moshe gone they were falling from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows; thus, leaderless, they needed a new intermediary! And they needed it now! That there is a sense of urgency that accompanied this “need” or this demand to make a replacement god is reflected both in the actions of Aharon, which are understood to have been an attempt to slow the Jews down, to buy time for Moshe to return, and even more bluntly in the way Hashem depicts these moments as a “free-fall of faith,” סָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙.

How often have we imagined ourselves being so much more spiritual, or of greater faith, if only we had been born into that generation! So, if experiencing miracles didn’t secure their faith, what was their fatal flaw? Rabbi Sacks, zt”l, suggests that we consider the Cheit HaEgel (the Sin of the Golden Calf) within its broader contexts; the two sets of Luchot, one given before the sin and one given after, each representing alternate models of achieving spirituality and experiencing a connection to Hashem. The first Luchot were divinely inscribed, the holiest of all creations, gifted to the Jewish people directly from Hashem and in the wake of His revelation at Har Sinai וְהַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹקִים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹקִים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת ׃. The second set of Luchot were produced by Moshe after an extended plea for forgiveness, and being man-made, lacked the same level of holiness. And yet, the first Luchot were smashed to bits within moments of being brought down to earth and the second were entrusted to the people, and served their purpose. How are we to understand the contrast?

When considering where Jewish inspiration comes from and how it is sustained, we can draw insight from two different models of encountering Hashem and
kedusha as described in the Jewish mystical tradition. Rabbi Sacks describes these as “two types of Divine-human encounters. They called them itaruta de-l’eylah and itaruta deletata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by God, the second by human action. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human, all too human.”

The first model—itaruta de-l’eylah—is directed by Hashem and can, or often does, change nature. Human beings, however—who are entirely passive and recipients of these moments of connection and inspiration—are not changed, fundamentally, anyhow. They are charged by the moment and when the moment fades they remain essentially the same humans. The second model of encountering Hashem—itaruta deletata—is provoked by a person’s efforts, the result of hard work, where someone exerts consistent striving against the odds, and rising toward heaven provokes a response. Each person in their daily grind, when building a Mishkan, or in dedicating time to learning Torah, when improving their middot and strengthening one aspect of their shemirat hamitzvot—is essentially changing themselves as they develop the muscles for a sustainable spirituality. That is itaruta deletata, a series of experiences that call out, “Hashem, look at what I’ve done! Do You see how hard I’ve endeavored? How far have I come? Can You see how much I need You? And, Hashem, will You meet me where I am?”

Perhaps it is in these actions and calls that we can experience a connection to Hashem that endures when the miracles are not as obvious. So that even when we don’t have an immediate response, or while we await miraculous and supernatural interventions, we are still able to know that we’ve changed. We’ve built new muscles, spiritual muscles, that have changed us and give us the tools to continue on the path of serving Hashem and encountering His presence in our lives. As we read each Torah text, consider how to appreciate the broader context, listen carefully to each other, strengthen our avodat Hashem in what we do, how we change every day of the week, and for me especially as we learn the weekly parsha together every Friday!


CB Neugroschl is head of school at Ma’ayanot.

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