August 7, 2018

Outreach by ideas, not just personality (Lech Lecha)

Parshat Lech Lecha begins by telling us how Avraham and Sarah heard the call of God to journey to the Land of Israel, and while the Torah informs us that Avraham and Sarah were accompanied by Lot, the nephew of Avraham, it also indicates that others also joined Avraham and Sarah on this journey.
According to one Rabbinic explanation, these were the men and women who had been inspired by Avraham and Sarah to believe in One God. These people committed themselves to monotheism, ‘converted’, and became part of the family.  But if this is the case, what happened to these people, and why are we not told anything more about them later on in the Torah?
While a number of commentaries have addressed this question, the first to explore this issue was the Chassidic scholar Rabbi Chanoch Henich of Alexander (see Pardes Yosef, Bereishit 1 p. 216). He explains that during the life of Avraham & Sarah, these ‘converts’ remained attached to their mentors. However, when they Avraham and Sarah died, they disconnected with Judaism and they were unwilling to continue to learn from Yitzchak & Rivkah who were the next generation of leaders. But why?
According to Rabbi Chanoch Henich, these ‘converts’ forged an extremely strong bond with Avraham and Sarah. However, the problem was that their commitment to God was inextricably linked with the personalities of Avraham & Sarah. Consequently, when Yitzchak & Rivkah took over the mantle and began to teach about God in their own unique way, these ‘converts’ could only focus on what was different, rather than what was the same. Eventually, they lost interest and they walked away.
I think that there are some important lessons that we can learn from the insight of Rabbi Chanoch Henich, especially in terms of how Rabbis, Rebbetzens, teachers and outreach workers operate. While it is important that spiritual guides are able to inspire their followers, it is no less important that the inspiration is rooted in the ideas that they share, and not just in their dynamic, charismatic personality. To paraphrase a teaching from Pirkei Avot (5:19), ‘any love of Judaism which is dependent on a particular personality, when the personality is gone, the Judaism is often lost’.
Especially as this Shabbat approaches, in which thousands of Jews will be attending events associated with ‘The Shabbos Project’, it is important that outreach workers are reminded to focus their attention on inspiring and engaging otherwise disconnected Jews with ideas, so that whatever happens in the future, these men and women can continue their journey of religious discovery and growth.

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