Never Give Up on Any Jew
Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )
Towards the end of Haazinu, Moses exhorts the people: “…Apply your hearts to all the words that I testify against you today, with which you are to instruct your children, to be careful to perform all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you, it is your life, and through this matter shall you prolong your days on the Land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess it.”1 Rashi, quoting the Sifri, explains that Moses was teaching that there is nothing in the Torah that does not teach a valuable lesson. He brings a seemingly insignificant verse in Toldot, “The sons of Lotan were: Hori and Hemam; Lotan’s sister was Timna.”2 The Sages reveal the background behind these words. Timna was a descendant of a royal family and she was determined to join the family of Abraham. When the Patriarchs rejected her, she resorted to becoming a mere concubine to Eliphaz, a son of Esau. This demonstrates the greatness of Abraham that great leaders desired to join with his seed. The Sages tell us that this example provides an important lesson.
Rav Moshe Feinstein asks; what exactly is the significance of this lesson that proves that there is nothing empty in the Torah. He writes; “What is the difference to us whether the non-Jewish Kings wanted their seed to join with his [Abraham] or not? He answers that this teaches us a very significant point - It demonstrates that one should not give up by saying that nothing will help with regard to those people who are distant from the Torah path. Rather if a person would teach others effectively and act in such a way that demonstrates the greatness of the Torah lifestyle then even the most distant people can return to God. Abraham was exemplary in both these aspects; he exerted great effort in teaching the values of belief in One God, and his personal example demonstrated the correctness of his beliefs. As a result, the most distant people wanted to join his family. This teaches us that we should never give up hope that our fellow Jews can return to Torah if they are exposed to its wonders.3
Great talmidei chachamim have always taken every opportunity to emulate Abraham Avinu’s efforts to bring people close to God even when there would seem to be little hope that their efforts would succeed. The well-known Torah lecturer, Rav Mendel Kaplan, made great efforts to befriend and teach secular Jews whenever he encountered them. His outreach even extended to children: A non-religious secretary in the yeshivah once brought her nine-year old son with her to work. When Reb Mendel saw the little boy playing in the hall, he called him over, pointed to a Chumash and asked, “Do you know what this is?” “Sure” the boy answered, “it’s a Bible.” “No,” answered Reb Mendel, “this is a Chumash.” He then pulled up two chairs and sat with the boy for an hour, teaching him Chumash on a level that the child could understand and appreciate. Later that day someone asked him why he had devoted so much of his precious time to a nine-year old boy. Answered Reb Mendel, “I hope that I’ve a planted a seed that will grow years from now.” 4 In this way, Rav Mendel refused to give up on this child just because he grew up in a secular environment. Rather he made a seemingly futile effort at learning with him because of the possible long-term consequences. Whether his efforts essentially bore fruit is of secondary importance. The main lesson is the attitude of not giving up hope and the willingness to try in any way possible to give a positive experience of Yiddishkeit to an unaffiliated Jew.
The following story demonstrates how one can never know what aspect of Torah can ultimately bring a person to teshuva. A young Jewish woman from a totally secular background went travelling around the world. She visited the Western Wall and whilst there, she was reluctantly persuaded to attend one Torah class. The topic happened to be about the Mitzva of returning lost objects. The class was somewhat interesting but did nothing to convince her to make any life changes or even to remain for further classes and she left Israel. Some time later she travelled on to the East and joined a Buddhist sect where she became a student of a guru. On one occasion they were walking together when they saw a wallet lying on the ground. The guru picked it up and continued on his way. Surprised, she asked him about his actions and he answered with the well-known phrase, “finders, keepers”. Suddenly, she had a flashback of the class that she had heard months earlier where a very different approach was espoused. She then appreciated the sensitivity of the Torah lesson that she had learnt which demonstrated the Torah expressed for other peoples’ objects. She now realized that there may be something to her religion of birth. This began a path that led her to return to her Jewish heritage.
We have learnt from a seemingly insignificant verse a vital lesson – that we should never give up hope that a person will come to a recognition of the truth of the Torah. This obligates us to do whatever we can to plant seeds that can facilitate their return.
1. Devarim, 32:47
2. Bereishit, 36:22.
3. Darash Moshe, Haazinu, 32:47
4. ‘Reb Mendel and his Wisdom’, p.258