by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Lech-Lecha Me'Artzecha: Go, get out of your land, from your birthplace,
and the house of your fathers, to the land which I will show you." [12:1]
If we look back at the end of the previous Parsha, we see that Avram's
father Terach also left for Canaan: "And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot
the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of
Avram his son, and he went out with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land
of Canaan, and they came to Charan and they settled there. And Terach lived
for 205 years, and Terach died in Charan." [11:31-32]
Terach, like Avram, recognized a need to separate himself, to dedicate
himself to G-d in some way. But unlike Avram, he did not complete the task.
He did half the job. He left Ur Kasdim, the land where they were surrounded
by idolatry, but never reached the Holy Land which the Jewish people were
destined to inherit. Terach, father of Avraham, could have been the first
of the founding forefathers of the Jewish people, but he didn't make it.
Avram's brother Haran came even closer, without even leaving. The Medrash
tells us how Haran died. Avram was thrown into the fire in Ur Kasdim by the
ruler, Nimrod, for the crime of smashing Terach's idols. Haran was unsure
whose side to take. So he said to himself, "if Avram survives, I will take
his side; if he dies, I will say I am on Nimrod's side."
When Avram emerged unscathed, Haran claimed to take his side -- at which
point, he, too, was thrown into the fire. The Medrash says that he was not
harmed on the outside, but his insides melted and he died. His public
declaration protected him -- but like the declaration itself, the
protection was only skin deep.
Building the Jewish people involved much more than simply leaving idolatry,
or making a show of being Jewish. Eating "kosher-style" deli was never the
same thing as keeping Kosher. Judaism required dedication to a new mission,
to a life filled with a love of G-d and our unique relationship with Him as
Jews. At that involved Avram consciously differentiating himself from those
around him. He had to leave his home to go to a new place.
Several years ago, one of our teachers issued his regular weekly class.
The topic was breaking down barriers between Jews, and he told a story
from his sister's childhood which showed how even language barriers must
be overcome. While describing the background against which the story took
place, he referred to his home community, a current "haven" of Jewish
life, as having been a "spiritual wasteland" at the time.
One of our readers, a great friend of Project Genesis, took serious
offense. He had lived in that community himself, and referred to it as a
vibrant one -- with literally tens of thousands of Jews.
Who was right?
As our parsha tells us, it takes more than Jews to build a Jewish
community. Avram only became Avraham, father of the Jewish people, when he
demonstrated his willingness to follow G-d, reached Canaan, and set out to
build a new nation.
The Rabbi did not say there were no Jews; he questioned whether there was
Judaism. And in his own defense, he offered the following observations:
* There was only one kosher bakery, and no supervised kosher restaurant.
* There was not one Torah study group or Talmud class.
* No Shabbos activities for kids
* No Jewish book library or tape library.
* People did not know what a Sukkah was.
* There were Yom Kippur gala dances rather than self-improvement lectures.
In other words, both were right. The community had lots of Jews, but it
was a spiritual wasteland. Unfortunately, we have seen this in many
Jewish communities in this country. Did American Jews build Jewish life,
or did they merely find places for Jews to settle together for a
generation or so, until the Jews became sufficiently assimilated into
Is a "Yom Kippur dance" representative of "vibrant Jewish life," or
"Judaism dying a slow death?"
The results of the latest National Jewish Population Survey are now
emerging. After the last one in 1990, the Jewish federation system went
into what could only be termed an organized panic, elevating "continuity"
to the buzzword of choice for the following decade.
After ten years of this, people must have expected the 2000 survey to hint
towards the results, because the UJC release spoke about the findings in
only the most positive terms. The Jerusalem Post, however, was somewhat
more blunt, terming the US Jewish community "older, grayer, and fewer."
We are still guessing at what the final results will be, but one can
safely make a few predictions. Because the survey attempted to sample the
entire country, we can expect that they will again miss the rapidly
ascending population in the midst of the larger decline. The most
affiliated Jews, who send their children to Jewish day schools, are hardly
fading away. The census of Jewish Day Schools, commissioned by the Avi
Chai foundation in the late 1990s, is anything but gloomy. Our schools are
bursting at the seams -- every year, the population grows larger.
Today, Jewish education keeps the Jewish people alive. We know that from
Torah, Talmud, and even from the population surveys. The Talmud says that
every House of Torah Study is like a piece of Israel. Even a single person
who studies Torah brings the Divine Presence near. And that is what we must
do. Like Avram, who left his home to come closer to G-d, we must dedicate
ourselves to G-d's Torah in order to be part of the Jewish future.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
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