Maximizing your influence (Shabbos 122)

The Baal Shem Tov founded the Chasidic movement.  He would travel far and wide preaching his twofold message of serving Hashem with joy and that every Jew has a share in the esoteric aspect of Torah.  His teachings spread quickly and he gathered many followers.  Upon his deathbed, he appointed his disciple, Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezritch, to succeed him.

The Mezritcher Maggid continued the holy work of his teacher, but his style was slightly different.  Instead of travelling the country, he stayed in his town and gathered around him a cadre of strong, scholarly, pious disciples.  Once he felt each one was ready to lead, and teach the message of Chasidism, he would send them to cities and towns across the region to establish ‘embassies’.  Thus, the Chasidic movement grew and grew, with each emissary expanding his own base.

Upon the Maggid’s passing, the Chasidim were distraught.  Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, he had not appointed any of his disciples to succeed him and carry forth the mantle of Chasidic leadership.  Nevertheless, with the passage of time, the brilliance of the Maggid became clear to all.  He hadn’t appointed an individual to succeed him; his vision for the future was a network of Chasidic branches spread across Eastern Europe, spreading his message to exponentially larger audiences. His one candle of leadership had kindled many leaders, each of whom began a Chasidic dynasty of their own across the land.

מַתְנִי׳ גּוֹי שֶׁהִדְלִיק אֶת הַנֵּר — מִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ לְאוֹרוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְאִם בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל — אָסוּר. מִילֵּא מַיִם לְהַשְׁקוֹת בְּהֶמְתּוֹ — מַשְׁקֶה אַחֲרָיו יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִם בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל — אָסוּר. גְּמָ׳ וּצְרִיכָא, דְּאִי אַשְׁמְעִינַן נֵר, מִשּׁוּם דְּנֵר לְאֶחָד נֵר לְמֵאָה, אֲבָל מַיִם לִיגְזַר, דִּילְמָא אָתֵי לְאַפּוֹשֵׁי בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל.

MISHNA: If a non-Jew kindled a lamp on Shabbat for his own purposes, a Jew may also use its light; but if the gentile kindled it for a Jew, it is prohibited to utilize its light. Similarly, if a non-Jew drew water (from a well in the public domain) to give his animal to drink, a Jew may give his own animal to drink after him; but if he drew the water for the benefit of the Jew, it is prohibited.

GEMARA: And it was necessary to teach (both cases). As, had it taught us only about the lamp, I would have said that this is because ner l’echad ner l’meah – the light of a lamp for one is the light of a lamp for one hundred people. However, with regard to water, there is room to issue a decree, lest one come to increase the amount of water he draws for a Jew.

The last few months have been terrible for all of humankind.  We have lost many loved ones.  Vast numbers have suffered from the ill effects of the virus.  The financial toll on individuals and businesses has been unimaginable.  And our youngsters have lost an important piece of their education and childhood experience.

At the same time, however, we have learned important lessons regarding engagement with one another with the potential to impact and improve our lives for evermore.  The growing use of Zoom meetings means that we will think twice before hopping onto a plane, or even a car, to meet business contacts and associates.  And we have discovered new ways to connect more regularly with loved ones.  One of our favourite local stories concerns 104 year-old Nita Katz who has great grandchildren in Israel.  Prior to the lockdown, she was lucky if she was able to see them once a year.  Now, she video-calls them every week!

Another important lesson we’ve learned from the lockdown is the power of ‘ner l’echad ner l’meah’ – the light of a lamp for one is the light of a lamp for a hundred.  It takes the same amount of time to prepare and deliver a shiur (Torah class) whether you’re teaching two people, two hundred people, or two thousand people.  All of a sudden, we’ve had to start delivering our classes online.  For many rabbis and rebbetzins, the initial switch from face-to-face teaching to virtual lessons was unnerving.  But before long, we all discovered that the reach of the internet is far greater than the reach one would ordinarily achieve with in-person classes.

It’s not only about quantity; there’s also a quality factor we’ve discovered.  We’ve spoken to people who identify as ‘twice-a-year Jews.’  They wouldn’t dream of stepping foot into a synagogue building other than High Holy days and simchas.  Even if the shul was hosting an interesting speaker, it wouldn’t attract them.  Synagogue is simply not where they go for their educational and social needs.  But then they happen to be scrolling down their Facebook feed and notice a shul programme that looks half-interesting.  And so they click on it, if nothing more than for curiosity’s sake.  Lo and behold, many are finding they’re actually stimulated by the offerings!

And so now, we’re now able to engage with many more people than we had ever imagined possible.  Shul members or not, the power of rabbis and rebbetzins to teach Torah has grown exponentially over the last few months.  That same candle they would have kindled for one or two now lights up the homes of hundreds and thousands.

With the easing of the lockdown, where do we go from here?  The second example of the mishnah concerns an animal drinking trough and its limited supply of water.  The truth is there is no substitute for the power of small group learning.  While the water in that trough may be limited, in a certain sense, its power to impact is far greater than the unlimited light of the candle.  Torah is compared to light, but it is also compared to water.  Both aspects are vital to ideal Torah delivery.  We need to shine the light as far as possible.  But we also need to give the right amount of water to each individual to drink.

Our newfound methods of imparting our heritage should not come at the expense of our age-old successful one-on-one approach.  Torah learning has always thrived on the dual process of shiur plus chavrusa learning.  Students of Torah learn in pairs, as well as attending large educational gatherings.  The challenge for Torah teachers now will be to strike the right balance between maximizing the light of Torah through the vehicle of online delivery, and maintaining individual Torah relationships.

This message, of course, is not unique to rabbis and rebbetzins.  Every individual has a duty to teach Torah.  If you know an aleph and a bet, and you know someone who only knows an aleph, you have an obligation to teach them the letter bet.  Nobody has a monopoly on Torah teaching and the task of educating our brothers and sisters is immense.  The more people that can be teaching, the further the light of Torah will shine.

Concerning the messianic era, the prophet Habakkuk declared, “For the world shall be filled with the knowledge of God as the sea is covered with water.”  That prospect was unheard of until the advent of the internet.  In the twenty first century, the prophecy is fast becoming a reality.  May you be an integral part of the messianic miracle!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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