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Thursday, 4 December, 2014 - 12:32 pm

Rabbi Wolfson was giving his speech to the Jewish federation about the "Tragedy of Jewish assimilation."

Toward the end of his long speech the Rabbi clapped his hands... waited 10 seconds... and clapped his hands again.
The audience looked puzzled. The Rabbi then explained that every time he clapped his hands some Jew married a non-Jew.
Immediately Morris jumped up from his seat in the audience and shouted, "Nu... So Stop With Your Clapping!"
At the end of this week's Torah portion, Noach, we meet the first Jew of all time. There can only be one first Jew, but it is not Noach. His name is Abraham.
Why Abraham? Was it because he was the founder of monotheism, and the first to recognize the existence of the One True G-d? No, he was not!
Chanoch, great-grandfather of Noach, who lived many hundreds of years before Abraham, also recognized G-d. Let’s not forget Adam—he was created by G-d himself; he spoke with G-d, complained to G-d, and G-d spoke back to him.
Then of course, there was Noach. The Torah gives him an introduction unparalleled in all of the Tanach. Not even Moses is introduced with these marvelous words:
“Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.”
The Torah tells us that Noach was informed by G-d that the wickedness of mankind had been mounting for years, and they were deserving of destruction by a Flood. He was to build a lifeboat to contain his family and representatives of the animal kingdom. At this point he was 500 years old, with a wife, three sons and three daughters in law. In all, 8 people.
More than a century later, the Flood finally begins. How many people clamber aboard the Ark? Eight. In the 120 years Noach spent building the Ark, was he unable to inspire one more person to live a more ethical, righteous life? Could he not have prayed to save the life of even one more person?
We can’t judge him. You have to understand his psychology. He was afraid to engage the world for fear that he might get caught in it. If you are an inexperienced swimmer, and you see someone drowning in the ocean, heaven forbid, and you jump in to save him, the victim may pull you down with him. Now, two will die. This was Noach’s rationale.
Abraham also faced a world in crisis, or what the Midrash calls, “a palace on fire.” He also faced a world in complete denial of the duty of humanity to be kind to each other. But his response could not be more different from Noach’s. The Torah described him thus:
“And he [Abraham] called there in the name of G-d, Master of the world.”
This teaches us that Abraham our father taught all the passersby to call out the name of the Almighty. Abraham would inspire the men, and Sarah would inspire the women.”
Maimonides describes how Abraham traveled from city to city, lecturing to the masses on the life they could possibly embrace. Abraham amassed thousands upon thousands of followers, eager for the word of G-d. According to Rabbi Menachem Hameiri, in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers, Abraham transformed almost half of human civilization living in his day!
What made Abraham different?
1) He had a confidence in himself and his faith which the others lacked. Abraham knew that G-dliness and Judaism were the ultimate products—the underlying design of our world. Of course the world would be receptive to it!
2) Abraham knew that deep down this is what humanity craves. People crave meaning and purpose in their lives; they are thirsty to hear the truth of reality.
These two responses are the two approaches.
First, there was the pious, but timidly conservative Shem, the son of Noach. Like father, like son: For him, the peak of religious experience was to be "Shalem": Stay whole, complete; maintain your own integrity.
Then came Abraham, the radical, the revolutionary. For him it was not enough to be whole; the Jewish experience is about reaching out, and affecting the world; to be a “light unto the nations.”
The fact that G-d made Abraham the father of the Jewish people is a powerful testament of the ideals and values essential to our role, and purpose, as Jews.
What is our purpose? Why did G-d even come up with the odd, mysterious nation that is the Jewish people at all? If Judaism is only a framework to follow the will and instruction of G-d, He already has millions of angels, all ready and willing to the job much better than we will ever be able to.
The answer is right here. Abraham was different because he reached out, he tried to make a difference.
For hundreds of years, Jewish people were forced to keep their Judaism private. They were afraid to wear yarmulkes in the street, or light the menorah outdoors. Even today, in France, Jewish men are careful to put a hat on their heads before stepping outside to take the Metro. Thank G-d, most of us do not have to experience anything like that anymore. Judaism does not need to be confined to dusty synagogues on Shabbat. We can proudly practice our Judaism outdoors, and confidently express an authentically Jewish message in public, allowing our values to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
In Crown Heights, there was a Jew, Yankel, who owned a bakery. He survived the camps.
He once said, “You know why it is that I’m alive today? I was just a teenager at the time. We were on the train, in a boxcar, being taken to Auschwitz.
“Night came and it was freezing, deathly cold, in that boxcar. The Germans would leave the cars on the side of the tracks overnight, sometimes for days without any food, and of course, no blankets to keep us warm.
“Sitting next to me was this beloved elderly Jew from my hometown. I recognized him, but I had never seen him like this. He was shivering from head to toe, and looked terrible. So I wrapped my arms around him and began rubbing him to warm him up. I rubbed his arms, his legs, his face, his neck. I begged him to hang on.
"All night long, I kept the man warm this way. I was tired, I was freezing cold myself, my fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing the heat on to this man’s body. Hours and hours went by this way.
Finally, night passed, morning came, and the sun began to shine. There was some warmth in the cabin, and then I looked around the car to see some of the other Jews in the car. To my horror, all I could see were frozen bodies, and all I could hear was a deathly silence.
Nobody else in that cabin made it through the night. They died from the frost. Only two people survived: the old man and me.
"The old man survived because somebody kept him warm; I survived because I was warming somebody else…”
Let me tell you the secret of Judaism. When you warm other people’s hearts, you remain warm yourself. When you seek to support, encourage and inspire others; then you discover support, encouragement and inspiration in your own life as well. That, my friends, is “Judaism 101.”
This is why Abraham was the first Jew.
Noach is defined in Chassidic literature as “a righteous man in a fur coat.” There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a fur coat or light a fire. Wear a fur coat and you warm only yourself. Light a fire and you warm others. We need to light a fire.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky
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