Based on the Rambam & the Kuzari, Rav Miller notes that the creation of the Gold Egel wasn't actual avodah zarah.
The episode shows us, however, that going wild over something un-connected to Hashem is like avodah zarah.
But over Hashem?
We should burst with enthusiasm.
Rav Miller describes Rosh Hashanah in Slabodka (pages 5-6):
I remember in my yeshiva days in Europe, when we said borchu on Rosh Hashana night, it was actually wild.
The shatz got up and said Borchu es Hashem hamevorach quietly – that’s how it was, there was no niggun - everything was done with machshava, in a calculated manner.
But then the congregation answered; the yeshiva men began shouting.
BORCHU! What a noise! They were raising the roof and stamping with their feet. They actually went wild over Hashem!
We’re starting Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, and we came in to speak to Hashem, to express our love of Him, our gratitude and our hope that maybe He’ll give us another year of life.
And so we shouted to Him! Everybody shouted!
Unless you're used to it, you might be startled by a shul full of shouting, stomping congregants. You might think they're nutty or over-the-top.
But who looks at a sports stadium full of raving fans and thinks, "Gosh, these people are totally insane. Someone commits violence against a leather ball and someone else runs really fast—and THAT'S cause for excitement"?
This is one of the reasons why the Siyum HaShas gatherings were such a huge accomplishment—and such a huge kiddush Hashem.
It showed people coming together in droves to express their warmth and enthusiasm for Torah.
How to Get Excited over This World
It just depends how you do it and why.
For example, he says it's good to show your wife enthusiastic gratitude over the meal she prepared for you.
But you shouldn't be so into the food itself. Like, you shouldn't looooove the meal itself.
It's about feeling gratitude toward Hashem that He gave you this dedicated wife and this tasty meal.
Spiritually oriented people don't get excited over art or music appreciation classes, or coin collections, or all the other stuff.
Rav Miller says there's nothing wrong with looking at coin. The problem develops when we actually get excited about it.
He notes that the New Yuck Times is always excited about nothing.
(And nowadays, it gets enthusiastic over really bad things.)
How Is a Person Tested?
But how do you test a person to see where he or she is really holding?
According to his or her praises.
And there are 2 meanings to this.
(1) How do other people praise this person? Are they enthusiastic?
(And on page 9 & 11-12, Rav Miller offers wonderful direction for using this to find a good shidduch.)
(2) What does this person praise?
Rav Miller cites a famous story of 3 men listening to a dvar Torah while eating seudah shlishis (the Third Meal on Shabbat).
What happened after the dvar Torah.
Man #1 praised the dvar Torah.
Man #2 praised the stirring zemirot (songs with holy words) being sung.
Man #3 praised the herring.
It says something about each one.
Sure, they all have good qualities. They're obviously shomerei Torah & mitzvot.
But it's clear that the person who instinctively praises a dvar Torah is more spiritually refined than one who instinctively praises salted fish immediately after hearing a dvar Torah.
Rav Miller takes this idea one step further:
You become what you get excited about.
He notes that after he entered the rabbinate, he observed that some people love fighting with relatives.
And it's true. Some people get depressed & miserable about it, but others thrive on the drama (though they refuse to admit it).
And people who get enthusiastic about fighting eventually become baalei machloket themselves.
Rav Miller puts it even more strongly: They become mushchatim — people with ruined character.
How to Generate Excitement about the Right Things
You can train yourself to get excited over good, beneficial things.
Rav Miller notes that Chovot Halevavot states that a person's heart is drawn after his speech.
Meaning, that by speaking of a certain thing, he can awaken his emotions over that thing.
The more you speak about something, the more it affects you.
And gradually, it changes you.
Then Rav Miller states a shocking fact: "So, the people who are busy praising tzaddikim, they become tzaddikim."
Yes. Talking about the right things can actually influence you to become the very good things you speak of.
The Problem with Praising the Unpraiseworthy
Rav Miller warns against praising another person too much (unless it encourages him or her to improve), especially if the person is not a tzaddik — and all the more so, don't praise a rasha.
He gives the example of the time a "Jewish" organization awarded another Jew "Man of the Year," — but his wife wasn't even Jewish.
Everyone was standing & applauding him, but in Hashem's Eyes, he wasn't a man — an ish — at all.
Even a frum person, if he doesn't have good middot, we need to be careful not to get so enthusiastic over him.
Rav Miller states (page 15):
We don’t get excited about people who are not shomrei Torah, who are not tzaddikim...If anybody is excited about a rasha – even a little bit excited – he should know he himself is an oizev Torah, he’s forsook the Torah.
He’s forsaking the tremendous lesson Moshe Rabeinu taught us when he came down from Har Sinai to bring us the Torah.
We don't need to go up to a rasha and insult him to his face.
But at the same time, we need to be careful to whom we accord honor & praise.
Personally speaking, this is an important lesson for me because the cultures I grew up in within America tend to praise easily and get all gushy on top of that praise.
That tendency requires balancing. It's good to be so ready to see the good aspects of a thing, but to show some restraint at the same time.
Our main honor & praise should be channeled toward tzaddikim.
Getting All Enthusiastic about Mitzvot
A yeshivah boy can praise all different aspects of his yeshivah — including the food.
We can enthuse about getting read for Shabbat or Peseach.
We can gush about what a satisfying davening we experienced.
We can get excited over acts of chessed we witnessed or read about.
Getting excited over tzedek & tzaddikim: That's the way to go.
That's the way to really make it.
Dancing in the Kitchen with Soup Ladles
There, 15-year-old Gutta helped her grandmother & another 50something-year-old woman cooked huge vats of soup for the 30-40 yeshivah students to eat for Melaveh Malka after Shabbat.
To the teenage Gutta, these 2 women seemed ancient.
However, an amazing thing happened when they finished their cooking.
The other woman would start dancing, and Gutta's grandmother often joined her.
With each one holding a soup ladle, they called out to Gutta, "Come, Gittele, dance with us. With this zechus, we will dance at your wedding!"
Gutta recalls (pages 22-23):
I would whirl around with my grandmother, breathless, wrapped in cloud-like steam, always to the same melody: "Mashiach has come, Mashiach is here already."
I did not understand at the time that this dance was a gift, that it gave me a few minutes of eternity, and that with this dance I received a key that I have an obligation to pass on.
A mitzvah, a zechut: The yeshivah boys would have a nourishing Melaveh Malka meal Saturday night!
This was so exciting, they whirled breathless around a kitchen clouded in steam.
And their enthusiasm over this zechut (merit) gave way to increased excitement over an even greater possibility: Mashiach is already here!
And instead of batons or some such other dance accessories, they held soup ladles.
Their pure joy & enthusiasm is a zechut that stands for them even now, wherever they are (and they're definitely in a good place).
They were fulfilling exactly the lesson Rav Miller elicits from this week's parsha (page 17):
And that means that the more you‘re excited about Hashem and the more you say hallel about the important things of this world, the more you’re preparing for the Next World.