Thursday, 19 January, 2017 - 3:30 pm

Just before the banquet, the master of ceremonies was informed that the clergyman who was supposed to give the blessing was unable to attend. He asked the main speaker to give a blessing instead.

The speaker agreed and began, "There is no clergyman present, let us thank G-d."

You all know that rabbis are like salesmen. The main difference is that the salesperson sells you something you want but don’t necessarily need, while the rabbi sells you something you need but don’t necessarily want….

But perhaps, the time has come to join the two and “buy” something we both need and want.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, relates how Moses was chosen as the first and quintessential Jewish leader and teacher. Why Moses?

The Midrash answers by way of a story:

Moses was shepherding his father-in-laws' sheep one day, when one bolted. Moses followed the runaway animal to a body of water where it stopped for a drink. Moses said to the sheep, "I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. You must be exhausted.” He then scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders, and headed back to his flock. Said G-d: If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd mine.

This seems like basic ethics. If I am put in charge, I must ensure everyone’s safety. How did Moses’ behavior express a unique level of compassion?

The Rebbe points out that when Moses spoke to the sheep, his wording of "I did not know that you ran away…” make it seem as though he blamed himself for not providing the sheep with its needs, causing it to search for water. Why was he unaware that the sheep ran off to look for water? 

Sheep tend to follow the herd. Yet this sheep deserted the flock, in defiance of its nature. One would naturally assume that this sheep was a “rebel” to defy its instincts, abandon the entire flock, and jeopardize its own safety.

Yet upon reaching the animal at the river bank, Moses discovered something. "I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty,” he confessed. Moses didn't see a rebellious creature; he saw a frightened sheep in need of immediate attention. He discerned what others might have overlooked, that thoughts of hydration, not rebellion, drove this tender animal to break from "tradition" and to leave its natural environment.

At that moment, G-d knew that he was the man to guide, teach and lead the Jewish people. He was to become a role model for Jewish mentors, teachers and leaders. Our history is filled with apparent “rebels” running away from the Jewish “herd,” leaving behind their heritage, tradition, and faith. How ought we to respond? Do we label them as mavericks and dissenters? Do we give up on them?

Moses showed us the way with his astonishing confession. “I am so sorry. It is my fault you left. You felt you needed to run somewhere to survive.”

Moses was not judgmental. He was perceptive, understanding and loving. A master detective of the human spirit, he followed the clues leading to man's underlying goodness, recognizing thirst where others might see mutiny, and seeing restlessness, and even insubordination, as an expression of a desire to survive, excel, find happiness, and grow.

It's so easy to write off wayward or defiant students, children, members of our faith, and of society at large. It's only natural to label and denounce them. But to be a true Jewish leader, parent, educator and mentor is to perceive the thirst in their bark, to see the cause of their hurting, to look at ourselves in the mirror of responsibility as opposed to looking at others through a window of culpability.

Zero Mostel was one of the most famous American actors and comedians. His real name, however, was Shmuel Yoel Mostel. He was born in Brooklyn to a very observant family with eight children, and was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ultimately, he left Jewish observance, earned world fame as an American actor and comedian, and was a three-time Tony Award winner.

When he began entertaining, he chose "ZERO" as his stage name and became known as Zero Mostel. When asked why he chose such a strange name, he explained that his father had constantly told him, “You are a zero, and you will always remain a zero.”

So, he went on to become the famed Zero Mostel!

The message is painfully clear. If you don't make your children feel special, they will find someone who does. 

Leon Trotsky is regarded as the intellectual father of Russian, and later Soviet, communism. He was a co-founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the founding leader of the Red Army, which ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution and the hellish communist regime

One of the most distinguished and pious leaders in pre-war Europe was the Chafetz Chaim. Every Shabbat, during the third meal, he would give a Torah class in his home. Once, a teacher from a nearby town who was in his city attended the class. Upon entering, he pushed his way through the large crowd to personally greet the rabbi, but the great rabbi did not acknowledge him. He thought that perhaps the rabbi had not noticed him, so he waited until after the class to introduce himself again. Yet, the rabbi once again ignored him. He realized that the rabbi did not want to talk to him. After everyone had left, he tearfully approached the rabbi and asked why he would not even look at him.

The Chafetz Chaim responded by asking him if he remembered a student of his named Leibeleh?

The teacher thought back and recalled that many years earlier he had indeed taught a student named Leibeleh Bronstein. The rabbi asked him what had happened to that boy. The teacher responded that the boy’s family had fallen on hard times and was unable to pay the tuition. “I still kept him in class for a while without payment. But soon, I couldn’t afford to keep him, so I sent him out.”

“Do you know what came of this boy?” asked the rabbi. The teacher responded in the negative.

“I will tell you what happened after you sent away this boy, Leibele Bronstein. He was ultimately lost to our people. Leibeleh became Leon; Bronstein became Trotsky. Your former Yeshiva student is Leon Trotsky, a co-founder of the USSR.

Indeed, they say that in 1920, when Trotsky was head of the Red Army, Moscow's chief rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Mazeh, asked him to use the army to protect the Jews from pogroms. Trotsky is reported to have responded, "Why do you come to me? I am not a Jew." To which Rabbi Mazeh answered: "That's the tragedy. It's the Trotsky’s who make revolutions, and it's the Bronstein’s who pay the price."

Of course, the Chafetz Chaim was not fully blaming the teacher for Trotsky. It was the age of Jewish secularization and revolution in Russia.

However, we can learn from this story. Now is the time to reach out to every sheep, lift him or her onto our shoulders, acknowledge that we may have not given our sheep the water it deserved, and lovingly embrace him or her for eternity with limitless love.

Do we need better proof than Trotsky himself? If only the bespectacled, frazzle-haired leader of the Russian Revolution, who renounced his Jewish identity, could see his great-grandson, David Axelrod. The 49-year-old Russian emigrant is a Torah observant Jew, living in Israel. Each of our sheep can and should be embraced and given the living waters of Torah and Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

There are no comments.