Mark Wildes

Taking responsibility

Rabbi Mark Wildes Putting Tefillin On Student

In the 1960s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to travel to the former Soviet Union with Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items for Russian Jews. At the end of one of his trips, Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room in when there’s a knock at the door. He looks through the peephole in the door and sees a young boy. Reb Shlomo opens the door, and the boy asks. “Are you the rabbi who gives out Tefilin?” “Yes I am,” Reb Shlomo answers,“but I gave all my Tefilin away already. I’m so very sorry.” The boy looked very sad and with a tear in his eye innocently asked: “But next week I will be a Bar-Mitzva, how can I celebrate my Bar-Mitvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo opened his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin. Holding the old velvet bag with the Tefilin, he kneels beside the boy and tells him the following: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather who was a great rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps, and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar-Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy promised Shlomo and thanked him. He headed for the door but right before he was about to leave, the boy put his hand on his bare head and turns to Reb Shlomo: “Do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have non left. The boy looked up and asked: “But how can I wear my Tefilin w/out a Yarmulke?” Sure enough, Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to smiling boy.

I remember when I first heard this story, wondering what compels someone to part with something so valuable and sentimental for a complete stranger?

When Moshe, raised in Pharoh’s palace, goes out into the field and he sees his enslaved brethren the Torah says: va’yar b’sivlotam – “and he saw their affliction.” Rashi explains that “Moshe placed his eyes and his heart to be in distress with them.” Moshe didn’t just look from a distance as his oppressed brothers. He felt their pain. He was with them in their anguish which, no doubt, motivated Moshe to stand up for the Jew being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster.  Because Moshe felt connected, because he felt their pain, he took stood up and took responsibility.

In last week’s parsha, Ki Sissa we read about the Chayt Ha’aygel, the dramatic Sin of the Golden Calf. After all those who participated in the sin were punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish people – those who were not involved in the sin and he tells them: “You have committed a great transgression and now I’ll go up to God,” maybe He will forgive you for your sin.”

What sin is Moshe referring to? The Jews who committed the Sin of the Golden Calf were already punished! Moshe was addressing the Jewish people community who had not participated, so what sin was Moshe referring to?

My esteemed teacher Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter suggested it was for the sin of remaining passive. The sin of indifference. These Jews did not engage in the sin themselves, but they failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah commands us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “Do not stand by the blood of your brother” and our Sages famously teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze – all Jews are responsible one for the other.” And so, even though so only a relatively small part of the Jewish people participated in the incident of the Golden Calf, the entire Jewish community was held responsible because we are all connected. We may not always feel connected, but Hashem views and treats us as one. And there are moments that remind us that the world looks at us as one too. October 7th and all the antisemitism that has revealed itself since that day, is a harsh reminder of how the world looks at us – as one people, no matter where we come from or in what we believe.

The Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual: when one part of the body is in pain the entire body is affected. So too each Jew feels the pain and the joy of another because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai compares the Jewish people to the passengers of a large ship beginning to sink. The crewmen are desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship, when they come across a passenger drilling a hole in the floor of his cabin, the water is gushing through. The passenger defends his behavior, claiming that since he paid for his cabin, he should be able to do what he wants. It is, after all, his cabin.

We’re all in the same boat. If one Jew stumbles, we all stumble. This is something which we have a history of overlooking. The Talmud says that when the Temple was destroyed, the tzadikim -the righteous of the generation also perished because they did not lead the nonobservant towards greater involvement and commitment. The Rambam speaks about how Avraham publicly proclaimed Hashem’s name, bringing others closer to His presence. The Ra’avad asks why Sheim and Eiver (who according to our Sages had a Yeshiva at the time) did not speak out against all the idol worship of the time and like Avraham, try to bring others closer to Hashem. The Kesef Mishna answers that it was precisely for this reason that Avraham was considered greater than Sheim and Eiver. Avraham and Sara cared about those that that weren’t connected. They had a sense of Areivus, of responsibility for their fellow man.

For the last twenty-five years, I and the dedicated MJE staff have had the great merit of working with thousands of less affiliated young Jewish men and woman, engaging them in all facets of Jewish life. Hundreds of our graduates are today leading lives of Torah and mitzvot, sending their children to yeshivot and Jewish day school. And it all happened because of that sense of Areivus, of a feeling of connectedness – that we are one family that looks out for each other. The Teaneck/Bergenfield community has graciously opened its doors for countless MJE Shabbatons over the years. So many incredible families from the community have rolled out the red carpet and hosted our many participants in their beautiful homes. At our 25th Annual Dinner on April 2 we will be honoring Chani Perlman for educating and inspiring young Jewish professionals at MJE for the last for 20 years! Moshe and Dahlia Bellows will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award with our Senior Fellowship Program being named for Moshe’s late father Shael Bellows z”l. My dear friend, Yeshiva University President Rabbi Ari Berman will receive MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award, and a special presentation will be made in memory of my beloved father, Leon Wildes z”l for his many years of dedication to building and shaping MJE. Finally, Adam Elkaim, an active MJE participant who we are immensely proud for his incredible spiritual growth, will receive MJE’s Student of the Year Award.

The April 2 Dinner will be dedicated the soldiers of the IDF and the release of the hostages. If there was ever a time to demonstrate unity and oneness it is now. In the zechut of all the Areivus our community has shown, and all the Torah and mitzvot observed by our many graduates, may we see the success of the chayalim and the release of all the hostages.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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