Understanding Narrow Places and the Golden Calf

A couple of years ago as a participant in the M2 Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators’ Program, our group debated how learners concretely experience a wide variety of Jewish values. So for example, if we wanted to teach a group of teenagers about the value of “responsibility” we may arrange for a group of puppies from a local shelter to be given into their care for a few hours. Then we would debrief and unpack the emotions, the insights, the gleanings from the experience and apply their knew knowledge to their understanding of “responsibility.” We tossed out a wide range of Jewish values and brainstormed different concrete experiences we could offer learners in order to enrich their relationship to these values. For the most part, the ideas came easily … until we were presented with the value of “freedom.” Some asserted that it was impossible to create an experience of freedom because in order to do so, a person would have to experience bondage (a lack of freedom) first. And anything short of putting someone in jail for a night, you couldn’t create a scenario where someone would literally be temporarily stripped of their freedom. While there was some debate about this, our cohort mostly came the conclusion that indeed it wasn’t really possible in the contexts of our programming to have people truly experience freedom. It has stumped me and challenged my creativity for a long time. And now it doesn’t need to.

Thanks to Covid and sheltering-at-home protocols, physical distancing, businesses and schools being closed, we have all experienced the feeling of being held in a narrow place (Mitzrayim – aka Egypt). We have felt trapped, we have felt lonely, we have felt controlled. We have experienced loss, we have experienced grief, we have experienced confusion, we have experienced uncertainty. So juxtaposed to the freedom we will feel once we are vaccinated (and we have herd immunity), we can now speak about the value of freedom with a completely new perspective.

And just as we can talk about what we are looking forward to (meals in restaurants, sending kids back to school full-time, traveling, hugging friends and family we haven’t seen in a year or more) we can also now fully understand that there is FEAR in new-found freedom – a new understanding of the Golden Calf.

The Jews lived for generations in Egypt, some of it freely and some of it bondage. The Jews of the Exodus story only knew slavery and now that they were experiencing freedom for the first time, many had fears of the unknown: the desert terrain in front of them, how they would be fed, how they would get shelter, how they would govern the community. It was that fear that drove a subset of them to engage in idol worship in the hopes that they would not perish in this new unknown freedom.

So what is on the “Golden Calf” list we will have as we will emerge from Covid quarantine? What will we hold onto because of fear? Will we ever return to a buffet restaurant? Will we feel comfortable eating a piece of cake after someone has blown out the candles? Will we always wear masks in public? Will be investigate the vaccine status of everyone in our circle? Are we ditching handshakes in deference to the elbow bump?

As you take to your Seder tables this year, consider how you will engage your family in processing their new understanding of the juxtaposition of bondage and freedom. All of our family members (the simple, the wicked, the wise and the one who doesn’t even know what to ask) will have something to say – an emotion to share, a new piece of knowledge, a fresh understanding, a reflection, and just like the maggid (the story) in the Hagaddah, we should ask each to participate in the shared experience.

May your vaccines be expedient and your escape from the Mitzrayim of shelter-at-home soon come to end. And may next year, our Seder tables and our homes be overflowing with guests.

Chag Pesach Samaech!

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