Here’s one of my favorite stories: In a small town there were only ten Jewish families and, among them, there were only ten Jewish men. Each day they all came to pray so that there would be a minyan. Because of this important commitment, even if someone felt tired or weak, he would compel himself to come and pray nevertheless. Each man felt that everything depended on him.
One day there was a huge celebration: A new Jewish family had come to live in the town! Yet the following morning, no one came to pray. Each man felt a little less responsibility, thinking that the rest of the men would make a minyan without him, and therefore excused himself from his previous commitment.
This week’s Torah portion, parashat Bamidbar, opens with a comprehensive census in which the entire public is counted and every individual, every family, and every tribe is given a role and a higher calling. The message is that even within large groups, or even within an entire nation, each individual has a special place and a unique mission. Each person is important. And today, just as in that small town, each of us must internalize the awareness that it is impossible to function as a whole if even one part is missing.
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Not To Frighten Ourselves
I don’t want to quote all the curses and disastrous prognostications that appear in Bechukotai, the Torah portion we read on Shabbat. There is a long list of diseases, terrors, and persecutions and all of us hope that most of them are already behind us. But there is one curse that should make us pause:
“I will bring fear in their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue them; they will flee as one flees the sword, and they will fall, but there will be no pursuer” (Leviticus 26:36).
Read this well. We are talking about people whom no one is chasing. They hear the sound of a leaf moving in the wind and think they are in danger. They run away and stumble over each other even though their fear is only imaginary. They do not know how to distinguish between a real danger and an imaginary fear. Rashi comments on this as follows: “For they will have fear in their hearts, and every moment they will think that someone is chasing them.”
We definitely need to contend with the deeply troubling circumstances and events in the world around us. But all of us need to check that we do not run away from troubles that we ourselves invent, that our hearts are not full of fear that has no basis in reality.
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What Did I Learn In London?
“What is the main message that I am supposed to convey here? To tell people to return to the synagogue?” I asked the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, prior to the onset of Shabbat.
Forty two lecturers assembled for a special Shabbat organized by Mizrachi UK. Each lecturer spoke in several schools, synagogues and auditoriums in the framework of the first Shabbat of its kind – to strengthen Jewish communal ties – since the end of the pandemic. Thousands gathered in order to be together once again, to pray, to sing, to study Torah as before.
I naively thought that the Chief Rabbi would simply want me to call upon people to return to the synagogue, but he answered me otherwise in revealing a profound educational principle:
To ask people to return to the synagogue? We did not come here to scold them and to ask them where they have been. True, many members of the community who were less committed – disappeared. For many of them, going to synagogue was a habit and they got out of this habit during the past two years.
But in order for them to return we must ask why they were coming in the first place, and then we must cultivate within them true faith with a genuine connection to holiness and prayer. We need to engender within them an appreciation for the weekly Torah portion and the importance of hearing it read in the synagogue on Shabbat. We must strive for them to feel the significance of Jewish identity within an active community. If we can do this, if we can light a spark, all of them will want to come. We do not scold, we inspire.
Thank you, Rabbi Mirvis. There was much enthusiasm and inspiration last Shabbat in London. I hope to take some of it back with me to Israel.