June 10, 2022

Yevamot 73

For reasons which I’ve yet to fully understand, many Jews don’t consider the terrifying statistics of assimilation as being something that is their concern, and when asked why, their general response is two-fold: a) what can I do about it especially as I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable/religious/capable, and, b) that is why we have outreach organizations like Chabad, Aish, Partners in Torah & NCSY.
In terms of point b), while many in those organizations are doing sterling work, the numbers of Jews disconnecting speak for themselves that it is not enough. And beyond this, as the Rambam states clearly (see Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah No. 3), we each have a duty to spread and share our love of Judaism.
Given this, I would like to address point a) and the implicit claim that one needs to be the greatest Torah scholar, or the most observant Jew, or the most eloquent of speakers, before attempting to share one’s love of Judaism with the hope of engaging those who seem Jewishly disconnected, and I’d like to do so by referencing a teaching in today’s daf (Yevamot 73a), as well as a powerful parable as taught by the Chafetz Chaim at the first Knessiah Gedolah in 1923*.
Yevamot 73a begins by teaching us about the laws of those qualified to sprinkle the ashes of the Parah Adumah over someone who has been in contact with the dead. Significantly, the one who sprinkled the ashes is referred to in the Torah (Bemidbar 19:19) as הטהר (‘the pure one’), while the one upon whom the ashes were sprinkled is referred to as הטמא (‘the impure one’). Yet, as our Gemara explains, the word הטהר is not meant as an objective statement. Instead, it is a relative statement, and it means that this person is pure from having been in contact with the dead but may, nevertheless, be in a state of טומאה (impurity) in-as-much-as they are temporarily forbidden from eating Terumah.
Applying this lesson to our situation, those who are called upon to ‘sprinkle’ their love of Judaism beyond themselves need not be the greatest Torah scholar, or the most observant Jew, or the most eloquent of speakers. In fact, as the Gemara indicates, they can have their own spiritual challenges. Still, in that moment, they are relatively better placed to help, and given the place that they are in, they should (as the saying goes, ‘If you know Alef, teach Alef’).
Returning to the Chafetz Chaim, in an earlier speech at the 1923 Knessiah Gedolah, he encouraged those present to do more in sharing Torah with those disengaging with Judaism. However, in the ensuing hours he had heard attendees reference the Gemara (Bava Metziah 107b) which states that one should first perfect themselves before turning one’s attention to others. Given this, he asked to speak again, and he then told the following parable (as recorded in ‘The Maggid Speaks’ p. 168):
‘A wealthy man came to visit a small town in which he had a large financial interest. When one of the townsfolk recognized him, he invited the gentleman into his home for a cup of tea. The rich man accepted and was served a steaming glass of hot tea. But, he was shocked when he saw what else the glass contained. At the bottom of the glass was a thin layer of sand.
“What is this?” he demanded. “How can anyone drink this?”
“It’s not our fault,” the host complained. “The water here is impure and contains particles of sand. It is terrible but we have no alternative.”
“That’s silly,” replied the wealthy man. “Get yourself pumps and strainers which will sift out the sand and purify the water. Then it will be clean and drinkable.”
A few weeks later the same wealthy man heard that a great fire had consumed a large part of the town. He rushed there to see what had happened. Upon meeting one of the townspeople, he asked, “How did the fire spread so rapidly and damage so much property?”
“I’ll tell you,” the man answered. “When the fire started we rushed to get water, but we realized that we didn’t have enough pumps to strain and purify the water as you told us. So we couldn’t use it. We followed your instructions.”
“That’s ridiculous!” screamed the man. “When there’s a fire you use any water at hand to put it out!”
“And that,” said the Chafetz Chaim, “is the situation today. When… there are so many Jews who know so little and some who know nothing at all, then the obligation to teach falls upon anyone who knows anything. Everyone must reach out to instruct others as best he can about Torah and mitzvot. Think not only of yourselves, but think of others as well.”
What we learn from today’s daf, as well as from the Chafetz Chaim’s call made just under a century ago, is that Jewish assimilation should bother each and every one of us, that we each have a duty to spread and share our love of Judaism, and that each of us have work to be done.
* nb. for the only existing video of the Chafetz Chaim taken when he arrived at Knessiah Gedolah in 1923 which took place in Vienna, see https://youtu.be/JUWaUDtpP38.
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