In the early years of Hineni, I spoke to a standing room only audience at Binyanei Haouma in Yerushalayim. As I looked out from the stage, I noticed there was a large contingent of frum people present, and on the spot I created a story to share with them.
“There was once a very tragic father,” I began. “Tragic, because his pain was unbearable. He had twelve sons, but was connected to only one. The other eleven had abandoned their father and were lost. The one loyal son who remained at home tried to be of comfort.
“Thrice daily, he reverently visited. Additionally, he called his father throughout the day. Even at night, before retiring, he ‘checked in’ one more time. Once a week he made a celebration in honor of his father, setting a magnificent table with delicious food, warm white loaves, and sparkling red wine. It was truly a celebration fit for a king. And several times a year he held spectacular festivals to bring joy and gladness to his father.
“But all this was to no avail. His father remained inconsolable, for how can a father have pleasure if eleven of his children are missing?
“Who is this father if not Avinu She’baShamayim? And who is the son who remains at home if not the observant Jew? Three times a day he goes to daven; every Shabboshe transforms his home into a palace and serenades his Father; and he does even more. Several times a year he arranges magnificent banquets. But the Father’s pain remains.
“Sadly, this is the state of affairs in the Jewish world today. The one son is the observant Jew who remains connected, while the vast majority of our people are disconnected. If you are a parent, you will understand this more readily. Is there a father who can rest if his children are lost or alienated from him? How could such a father be consoled? Is it possible for one son to ease this terrible burden from his father’s heart?
“The answer to this must be clear to every thinking person – and that is to assure our Father we will not stop or rest or falter until such time as we bring all our brethren home. Only such words can bring consolation and hope.”
I related this parable at a time when the ba’al teshuvah phenomenon was almost unknown. Hineni was the first mass movement to reach out to our people who were lost in the melting pot of assimilation and alienation.
I remember those days well. The Orthodox community viewed me with skepticism. “You’re wasting your time,” they told me. “These secular Jews will never last. Yes, perhaps for a moment, but their commitment will wane and dissipate.”
As for Conservative and Reform leaders, they regarded me with suspicion and were fearful I would be successful in getting their people to become more observant.
I remember when I spoke to a group of liberal university campus rabbis. Their eyes were moist with tears and when I finished they responded with thunderous applause. For a very brief moment I was excited. In my mind’s eye I saw invitations pouring in from campuses throughout the country. But I was quickly brought back to earth.
“Your words are very powerful,” they told me, “but they might just be too powerful (read: “too Orthodox”) for our students and with that my optimism evaporated. Today, nearly forty years later, they have all been proven wrong. The ba’al teshuvah movement has become a spectacular success, resuscitating the Jewish community and energizing it with renewed vigor and life.
As for proselytizing, we Jews do not proselytize. We just teach our Torah, and when a Jew hears the words of G-d, they enter his heart.
If we wish to comprehend how we have come to this pitiful state of Jewish amnesia in which our past becomes a blank, allow me to share a parable.
Long, long ago we had an ancestor renowned for his saintliness. Every day he would go to a forest, and kindle a mystical fire, chant prayers, and serve G-d.
When he died, his descendents continued his tradition. They too went to the forest and kindled the sacred fire, but alas they had forgotten the prayer. Nevertheless, in their own way they continued to worship G-d.
The next generation, however, not only forgot the prayer, they also lost the mystical wisdom through which to kindle the fire. Still, they would gather in the forest and recall the sanctity of their father, and through that recollection they managed to find their way to G-d.
Then came a generation that could no longer remember, a generation without a past – our generation, an orphaned generation.
Our nation, which was once led by prophets and sages, is today led by media pundits and wealthy moguls. So it is that, instead of searching for that Divine Fire, we pursue the fires of power and wealth. But the embers of the Divine Fire are still flickering – we need only kindle them and they will blaze with the majesty of G-d’s Word, for that is the promise given to us by the prophet Isaiah:
“And these words which I shall place upon your lips shall never depart from your lips, nor from the lips of your children or your children’s children, thus saith the L-rd, forever and forevermore.”