Safety, Growth, and the Golden Calf

Educational and psychological research have each offered evidence of the fact that humans don’t do well at learning or self-actualization without first ensuring that a set of basic underlying needs are fulfilled. Maslow’s hierarchy, for example, suggests that physiological needs are the foundation (children can’t focus on learning well if they are distracted by hunger or lack of sleep), followed closely by the feeling of safety provided by the knowledge that adult caregivers have matter well in hand. This is true for adults as well – it is particularly challenging to engage in personal or professional growth without both basic needs and an general sense of safety. I’d like to focus on the aspect of safety.

In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we find the following line:

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׃

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’

Exodus 32:1

The context is that the people were expecting Moses to return from the mountain by now, but he hasn’t – they think he is dead. We can infer a set of prevailing emotions including fear, anxiety, concern, discomfort, and uncertainty. These are emotions reflecting the absence of safety, and lead to a reaction based in fear – the creation of an idol (the infamous Golden Calf). Many commentators note that idol worship was widespread in the ancient world, and therefore the reaction described here would have been a return to old, comfortable patterns. It would provide a security blanket for the fear. Unfortunately, it was a major infraction against the new expectations, and was met with severe consequences.

This scenario plays out in our lives today. When we feel unsafe, anxious, or overwhelmed we tend to behave reactively, rather than proactively or thoughtfully. We allow our tendencies and our old comfortable patterns to kick in and take over, because the familiar feels good – we know what to expect, cut down on some of the uncertainty, and relish the temporary safety we’ve created. Unfortunately, such reactions tend to reinforce themselves, leading us in unproductive cycles of incessant hamster-wheel movement. They don’t lead to learning or growth, exactly as Maslow’s heirarchy predicts.

In order to grow, we need to acknowledge the fears, then do the hardest thing – actively make the decision to behave differently than we have in the past. We need to choose to break the old familiar pattern time and time again, and leap bravely into the unknown. This process is true for our school as well. Sometimes we feel afraid, anxious, troubled, or deeply concerned about our school community as it moves through various types of challenges. In those moments, we face significant temptation to do whatever it is we have always done. Sometimes the old action is appropriate, but engaging in it purely reactively, without considering other options, is simply foolhardy – as Einstein famously quipped, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

As I have moved from the first half of my first year into the second half, I’ve been able to see some places of great strength in the school, and also some places that require significant investments of time and energy to grow. One of these is in the area of conduct and discipline. The familiar cultural patterns at Gesher are fairly informal and unstructured in some ways, which can be wonderful for discovery, but challenging for management of behavior. In this area, doing what we have always done isn’t working. Faculty, parents, and students themselves have all identified this as an area needing improvement, and I concur. I look forward to working together as a community to redefine our norms, expectations, and consequences, because they are crucial to a students’ feeling of safety, and therefore a necessary building block of excellent education.

Shabbat Shalom,