Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 25th Adar I 5776, 5th March 2016
More than 50 years ago, American longshoreman-turned philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote a book called “The True Believer,” in which he describes individuals with a penchant for belief. They have to believe in something, but only if it 100% with all their heart and soul. Next week they may fall out of love with an ism or religion, because they have found another one that “speaks” to them more deeply. They will abandon the first without qualms and adopt the new one with the same fervor as the first. And then the third, and the fourth and the fifth. This can go on either until they find something that has enough mystery and content to satisfy them or, and this is my own view, they simply become too tired to jump any more from one bandwagon to another.
Here are two famous examples. Uri Zohar, the madcap anti-religious anti-establishment filmmaker-comedian-artist is now Rabbi Uri Zohar with all the accoutrements. Rabbi Adin Steinzalz, who wrote a Hebrew translation of the Talmud and many other religious works, was a Communist-atheist member of a Shomer Hatza’ir kibbutz until he was about 17. And then he dropped communism and took up Judaism.
What has this got to do with our parsha? Everything. There we see the source of this true believer syndrome among the Jews.
Last week we read that the people yearned for a leader/god to fill the shoes of the missing Moshe. They assembled (vayikahalu) and they pressed Aharon to do some magic for them and they showered him with gold from their wives and children and themselves. This, after they had sworn their allegiance to God: na’ase v’nishma – we shall act and we shall listen, meaning we’re with you, Lord, we’ll go all the way with you. Now they want a new god, so they get a golden calf.
This week, Moshe assembles the people (vayakhel) – the Torah uses the same verb to begin both last week’s debacle and this week’s rejoicing – and he tells them to bring gold and silver and bronze and expensive cloths and colors and whatnots for the building of the mishkan, and lo and behold, they inundate Moshe and the artisans with so much expensive material that Moshe has to order them to STOP BRINGING! (That is a very un-Jewish thing. There is no shul that has ever told its members to stop giving money or support to it!!!).
The point here, as Rabbi David Stav elucidates very persuasively, is that the Jewish people are – here we can use two different words to describe them: ENTHUSIASTIC about new things, or FICKLE about what they like. In this, they are like true believers. Today, they will support our synagogue, our movement, our philosophy. In a month, when the excitement wears off you may find them supporting an ashram in Tibet.
The results of such a behavior pattern are both good and bad. Why are we a start-up country? Because our people are always looking for the next big thing, the thing that will REPLACE what has been until now, will WOW the world. But then, when it becomes old hat, they will quietly, or not so quietly, exit and look for something new. Which can also be good.
But there is also a downside. We tend to follow fads – because they are new – in our policies and practices where we should, instead, use common sense.
Here’s a depressing example. For a number of years in the US, there was a fad for whole language reading. You did not teach kids the ABCs; you taught them whole words and they deduced the sounds of the letters after having learned the words. This was thought up, of course, by adults who had already mastered the ABCs.
When this fad had run its course in America, when educators realized kids were not learning to read, Israel picked up on the idea and the Ministry of Education introduced it here. Result: today there are a couple of grade levels of kids who either never learned to read properly or learned only much later, with a lot of hard remedial work. The whole idea has disappeared from the horizon in the meantime.
This awareness of the fickleness of public enthusiasm should be kept in mind by those in charge, and they themselves should make efforts to think through their ideas and policies and recommendations for improvements before they foist them on the public as though they were Torah from Sinai.