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Parshas Yisro (5770)

To Be a "Mensch"

This Z-mail was originally written two years ago when Rabbi Noah Weinberg Zt”l, founder and dean of Aish HaTorah, was seriously ill, and is being reissued here on the occasion of his first Yahrtzeit this past week – may the memory of this Tzaddik be for a blessing.
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It was during the horrible war years when the Nazi beast was destroying Jewish life all across Europe that a small group of Jews managed to escape and find safe haven in the far away city of Shanghai. Included in this group was virtually the entire student body of the famed Mir Yeshiva, who through an amazing twist of Divine providence, were able to relocate and continue studying Torah full-time in the bustling Chinese port city.

It is told that during that critical period for the Jewish people, the great Mashgiach (spiritual mentor) of the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, of blessed memory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yechezkel_Levenstein), rose to the podium and addressed the students with the following powerful message:

The Torah in Parshas Yisro teaches us that when Yisro the convert (and future father-in-law of Moses) heard about the Jews’ triumphant exodus from Egypt and how the Egyptians were smitten with the Ten Plagues, he was truly happy and grateful over Israel’s good fortune. "And Yisro rejoiced over all the good which G-d had done for Israel…." (Exodus 18:9).

Rashi cites a Midrash which suggests that the word Vayichad – “and [Yisro] rejoiced” - is also related to the word chidudim, or “prickles”, with the intended meaning that despite Yisro’s happiness for the Jews, he felt “prickles of pain” over what had happened to his fellow Egyptians. It is for this reason – Rashi continues – that people say that one should never speak disparagingly of a gentile in the presence of a convert, even up to ten generations after his conversion.

From this Midrash we learn – explained Rabbi Levenstein – how our Rabbis recognized that all human beings – whether Jewish or not - retain a strong innate attachment to their roots, to the point that ten generations later one might still be sensitive to a negative reference to his biological ancestors. Those “prickles of pain” we feel when bad things happen to our own kind are but a manifestation of the natural sensitivity of the human being – part of what it means to be a mensch.

Rabbi Levenstein continued to tell the students that if we can sit here and study Torah in relative tranquility in Shanghai without feeling deep pain and anguish over what is happening to our very own brothers and sisters in Europe - who are being murdered and cremated as we speak - it is not simply a deficiency in our Jewish character. It is a blemish in our personality, a basic lack of human decency. A Jew who doesn’t feel a natural inborn attachment to his own people is more than just a “bad Jew” – he is not a mensch at all! He is missing that ingredient which determines his ability to be an adam, a connected human being.

It has been said that today we are in the middle of another Holocaust – only this time it is not the Nazis who are finishing us off but we who are gradually doing it to ourselves through assimilation and intermarriage. The Jewish people are literally disappearing as we speak. As Birthright financier Michael Steinhardt wrote, commenting on the 2000 NJPS survey: “All would agree that Jews in America are demographically endangered. In addition to the usual suspects of assimilation and intermarriage, the survey revealed that Jews in America are getting married later and having fewer children -- so few that we are experiencing negative population growth ... When we remove the Orthodox from the statistical equation, the picture becomes that much bleaker for those American Jews who are most at risk.” [To see the NJPS 2000 survey results for yourself, click here]

Do we feel pained, or even slightly moved, by this tragic reality? Or do we continue to live our tranquil lives in our cozy little Jewish neighborhoods, oblivious to the Holocaust taking place all around us in which the majority of the Jewish people – our very own brothers and sisters – are being lost to our nation forever?

My grandfather told me how, during World War II, he and his fellow colleagues in the rabbinate would run around like madmen from local politicians in New York to prominent congressman in Washington to do whatever they could to save precious Jewish lives in Europe – since every second wasted meant another few hundred Jews killed. How many of us today are running around like crazy people doing whatever we can to stem the tide of assimilation among our people? And if we feel like we there isn’t much we can do, do we at least feel pained about the situation like Yisro did when his people were dying away?

Truth be told, there is one man who, probably more than any other Jew on the planet, lived with this horrible reality, feeling “prickles of pain” every single day for the past 40 years over the slow and silent disappearance of the Jewish people, and investing every effort in stopping the present-day holocaust.

That man – a true mensch by the Torah’s standards – is none other than Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Aish HaTorah’s founder and dean. And although he is unfortunately no longer with us, his message and life’s mission remain clear and strong and should serve as a model for all of us to emulate and follow.

Let’s hope and pray that with the combined efforts of all of us as one, we will merit to bring all the Jews back together as one happy family – the way it should be.

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