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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ki Tisa: The Roar of the Crowd

There's a scene in the Jimmy Stewart movie "It's a Wonderful Life" that's always bothered me. Yes, I know this is a Torah blog and that's a Christmas movie, but work with me.

Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a man in crisis who gets the chance to see how the lives of his relatives and friends would change had he never been born. Even if you've never seen the movie, you can probably guess that their lives are greatly diminished in his absence. But I've always been more interested in the rest of the community. You see, with George Bailey as a community leader, the streets of Bedford Falls are neat, the shops are quaint, and the people are warm and friendly. But without George Bailey, the town -- now named Pottersville -- is seedy, the streets are lined with bars and X-rated clubs, and the people are mean and grouchy.

It's always troubled me, this view of group dynamics, which holds that people sink to their basest level without a strong and charismatic leader. According to this theory, it's the role of the leader to quell people's natural tendencies toward degeneracy, and to spur them to more cooperative and productive activities.

I think of this indictment of groups when I read this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. In Ki Tisa, we learn what the Jewish people have been doing while Moses has been up on Mount Sinai receiving laws from God. It's not a pretty picture! The people have created an idol -- the famed Golden Calf -- to worship, and they are dancing, drinking, and otherwise being, as Moses later puts,  "out of control."

As teachers and parents, we encourage our kids to behave like leaders. We portray individuals like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., like Abraham of the Torah and Abraham of the Lincolns, as role models worthy of emulation. But in doing this, I think that we miss part of the picture. Psychologists tells us that middle schoolers hate to stand out. They want to look like everyone else, dress like everyone else, and act like everyone else. In short, they want nothing more than to blend in with the crowd.

Shouldn't we respect their inclinations, and try to figure out what makes a group successful -- even in the absence of a stand-out figure?

Why does one class of students continue to work if the teacher needs to leave the room for a moment, while down the hall, the kids will climb on their desks and hurl pencils at one another? Why does one group of middle-schoolers spend a Saturday night on their own, peacefully eating pizza and watching a movie in someone's basement, while another group of kids gets into trouble unless they are under the constant supervision of a parent? It can't be due entirely to the character of the individuals involved, since we all know children who act one way with one set of friends and the complete opposite way with a different set. What is the tipping point that turns Bedford Falls into Pottersville?

Can you find months an example in the Torah of a leaderless group that nevertheless behave cooperatively and productively? How does that group differ from the one in Ki Tisa? 

Above all, I think we need to recognize that groups -- whether families, school classes, or communities -- can do great things on their own. After all, there won't always be a Moses, or even a George Bailey, around.

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