Parshas Bamidbar / Shavuos: The Torah Does Not Belong To You
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
The Sfas Emes (and many others) point out that the Parsha of Bamidbar always precedes Shavuos because there are many important messages we need to glean from the Parsha as we prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah. One of the classic questions on the giving of the Torah is, why of all places was the Torah given in the Midbar?
The Medrash (Yalkut Shemoni) explains that had the Torah been given in a city it would have "belonged" to its inhabitants. The people of the city would claim that only they know the truth of the Torah and how it should be lived. In contrast, the desert is a place that is ownerless. Everyone can walk through the desert. By giving the Torah in a desert, Hashem was teaching us that the Torah belongs to no one individual. And because it belongs to no one person or community everyone is deeply connected with it. This is a call to action. If we are deeply connected to the Torah then we are obligated to share it with those who have not been fortunate enough to be exposed to it.
The kiruv movement is seemingly illogical. We invest millions and millions of dollars in reaching out to our brothers and sisters and to what end? How many of them will actually make Judaism an important part of their lives? But there is a fallacy in this way of thinking. It assumes that the goal of kiruv is to turn people into observant Jews. I strongly disagree. The point of kiruv is not to force our way into people's lives and demand (albeit politely) that they become more Torah observant. The point of kiruv is to share with others their rightful heritage. What they choose to do with it is up to them but our responsibility is to ensure that they are given the option to make the choice. Success is not measured by how many Jews keep Shabbos or Kosher. Every time two Jews get together to talk about God's mission in this world we are already successful. If I discovered that my brother and I were both entitled to a significant inheritance and did not share that news with him I would be a thief. Torah is the inheritance of every Jew and as a sibling it is our responsibility to share that news with the rest of our family.
Unfortunately not enough of us are involved. We have coined the term "kiruv professional" and abdicated our personal responsibility. Every single one of us received the Torah in the midbar. It does not belong to any one of us because it belongs to all of us. We all have a communal responsibility to share His Torah with those who have not been as fortunate as we are. I once had the opportunity to speak with Rav Noach Weinberg zt"l the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah. At the time he was visiting Lander College and was addressing the entire student body. I asked him what the purpose of his visit was and he shared with me that his dream was to arouse what he called the "sleeping dragon." In Rav Weinberg's mind the sleeping dragon was every Orthodox Jew who interfaces with any other Jew. If he could just get the community to see the value in drawing unaffiliated Jews closer we could have a tremendous impact on the future of world Jewry. Sadly I don't know if he was successful in his mission. And the question I would like to ask is, why not? Why does the dragon continue to sleep?
A dear friend of mine once related to me the following story. Aish HaTorah was running a summer program and was in desperate need of madrichim. Rav Noach Weinberg asked a group of Yeshiva boys if they would be interested in working on the program but because the program was co-ed they felt the need to speak it over with their Rosh Yeshiva. After doing so the boys reported back that they would not be participating in the program because they would be encountering women who would be dressed immodestly. Rav Noach picked up on a certain arrogant tone that the boy was using, as if participating in such a program was beneath his stature as a "Yeshiva guy" and was deeply upset by it. He responded to the boys by posing to them the following scenario. "Imagine that your sister was on a train to a Nazi death camp. You were given the opportunity to save her but you would encounter potential halachik problems. You went to your Rosh Yeshiva and he paskened that the right thing to do was not to save her. Of course you would follow the psak halacha that you were given but you would live the rest of your life with the knowledge that you allowed your sister to be murdered. Certainly you would not be arrogant about that choice. It would eat you up inside. It would leave you sleepless at night." Rav Weinberg then addressed the group saying, "By following your Rosh Yeshiva you are doing the right thing. You asked your Rebbe for a psak and you got one. But how could you be arrogant as your sisters train leaves to Auschwitz?"
It is a powerful story and one that when I heard it shook me to my core. So many of our brothers and sisters are simply unaware of the value of their Jewishness and are walking away without a care. Rav Meir Kahane once referred to it as the "self inflicted Holocaust" of Jewry. So why aren't we doing anything about it? Why do we leave it to the Kiruv professionals? Perhaps we are sleeping simply because we are unaware of how desperate the situation really is. Sure we have heard the statistics of the climbing rates of assimilation but there is some sort of cognitive dissonance that keeps us from really engaging the challenge. Maybe, and I don't know this to be true, we have written off our extended family because our Orthodox community is blossoming and thriving. We hear the statistics and we think of our brothers and sisters as numbers. We can do that because we can afford to. But the truth is we can't afford to. Consider the words of Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish HaTorah. "The bottom line is that if kiruv is dead, then Judaism will die as well. The day that we are not passionate enough about the Almighty to want to share it with the world will be a sad day for us all. I believe with all of my heart and soul that we must inculcate the next generation of Jewish children with a passion for kiruv. We must invite Jews far from the Almighty to our tables so they can ask questions, and our children must hear our answers. Our children must hear how much we love the Almighty. Our children must hear how He is with us in good times and bad. Our children must understand that Torah and mitzvot are a means to an end. If at the end we don’t grow to love and come close to the Almighty then our Torah is for naught." The lesson of the desert is clear. The Torah does not belong to any of us. It belongs to all of us. The moment we claim it as our own we have already lost it.
In a well known parable, a father is making a wedding for his youngest son. The father, a man of means, tells his children that they will be reimbursed for all the wedding expenses they incur. The children spared no expense purchasing new suits, dresses, shoes, clothing for their children etc... All except one. One of the children was so poor that he could not afford to lay out the money and he showed up on the day of the wedding in his usual attire. At the end of the wedding all the children gathered around their father to say goodbye but their father was clearly detached from them. When finally one of the children asked why he seemed so distant, the father pointed to his impoverished son and said, "This is my son. If you are truly his siblings you would have been sensitive enough to realize that he could not afford to make the neccesary purchases for the chasuna. You would have laid out the money to ensure that he too would have had new clothing for him and his family. I told you that I would reimburse you for the money you laid out but that's when I was assuming you were my children. If you are not his siblings then you are not my children."
How can we come to Kabbalas HaTorah if we have amputated our brothers and sisters from our nation? How can we come and declare that we are one people with one heart when have forgotten those Jews that are ignorant of their rightful heritage? I imagine Hashem is pointing to those children that are unaware of the value of their Jewish heritage and saying, "These are my children. If you are their family you would get involved. You would cry over every child that is assimilating into the gentile world. If you are their sibling you are entitled to receive my mission as embodied in the Torah. If not..." As Yehuda said to Yosef when he was arguing for the return of Binyamin, "How can I return to my father without the child?" One day God will ask us the very same question. How have we returned to God empty handed? Why have we left our brothers and sisters behind?