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Parshas Beshalach (5770)

Outreach For Dummies

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Beshalach, we find the Jewish people complaining about the lack of food in the desert. G-d responds to them by sending down this magical manna from heaven. He also instructs Moses to tell the Jews that the manna will only fall down six days a week, but not on the Sabbath. Sure enough, some of the people ignore Moses’ warning and go out looking for the manna on the Sabbath, and, of course, they can’t find any. At this point G-d says to Moses, “Until how long will [all of] you refuse to heed my commandments and teachings? See that your G-d has given you the Sabbath; therefore, He gives you on Friday a double portion …” (Exodus 16:28-29).

The obvious question we can ask is why Moses is being implicated along with the rest of the people who went out on the Sabbath to collect the manna against G-d’s word … surely Moses didn’t go out with the others?!

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, the great 16th-Century Italian Bible commentator, answers our question through a unique interpretation of these two verses. He explains that Moses was also at fault to some degree for the Jewish people’s going out to collect manna and transgressing the Sabbath because he failed to convey G-d’s “commandments” and “teachings”. That is to say, he never clarified for the people the commandment of the Sabbath - that collecting and carrying manna on the Sabbath was forbidden – he just told them that it would not be falling on the seventh day, which they didn’t believe. He also failed to impress upon them the teaching of the Sabbath – i.e. the rationale and deep wisdom and beauty behind the mitzvah as well as the reward in both this world and the next for those who keep the Sabbath. As G-d tells Moses in the next verse: “See that I have given you the Sabbath”, meaning that he should have conveyed to the Jewish people that the Sabbath is not just a commandment but also a gift for them to cherish and hold on to at all costs.

So what does all this have to do with outreach, you ask? Well, it’s actually quite simple. You see, for the past ten years or so the big issue being discussed by Federations and other Jewish organizations across North America and beyond who are concerned for the future of the Jewish people, is what can be done to reach out to the majority of Jews out there who are totally secular and who will likely be lost to the Jewish people forever through assimilation and intermarriage if nothing is done.

Everyone is looking for ways to get Jews to come back to Judaism. Some have even gone to extreme measures to get Jews to stop their downward slide to Jewish oblivion – like those (thankfully few) misguided Chareidi Jews who yell and throw stones at those unknowing secular Jews who accidentally find themselves driving through religious neighborhoods in Israel on the Sabbath. Still others like Max Feinberg (he’s the wealthy guy in Chicago who disinherited those of his grandchildren who married out of the Jewish faith) think they can change things by “punishing” those who abandon their Jewish heritage.

Some, like Michael Steinhardt, believe that the best way to effectively reach out and “stem the tide” of assimilation is by enticing young Jews to Israel with free trips in the hope that a spark will be kindled in the Holy Land and their Jewish identity will be strengthened.

What I believe G-d is telling Moses by including him with the other Jews who transgressed the Sabbath – and what the Torah is teaching all of us through this story – is that together with all the other outreach efforts that we may try, the most important thing we can do to bring young Jews back to their heritage is to model our own Judaism and let our distant fellow Jews see just how much we cherish the Sabbath (and anything else we do Jewish) and view it as the gift it truly is.

When our unaffiliated brothers and sisters see how much we love our own Judaism (and the more we learn about the wisdom and beauty of our heritage, the more we will come to love it) and what it means to us, and how it adds so much meaning and purpose and joy to our lives, they will want a piece of it guaranteed. But so long as we ourselves treat our own Judaism merely as a commandment and not as a gift, I fear that all our other efforts at Jewish outreach will be largely unsuccessful.

This is the challenge for our generation. If we are to be truly effective in bringing all those lost Jews back to their Jewish heritage and religion, we first need to get our own Judaism up to speed before we can bring others on board. It’s that simple. So let’s get on it ...

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