The story is told of an encounter between two famous Rabbis of yesteryear - the Vilna Gaon and the Dubno Maggid. The Maggid, or Preacher of Dubno, once visited Vilna and went to pay a courtesy call on the great Sage, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna. The Gaon asked the Dubno Maggid to preach to him, as was his specialty. "Please give me some mussar (words of rebuke). Chastise me," said the Gaon. "G-d forbid that I should have the chutzpah to chastise the great Gaon of Vilna!" replied the Maggid, quite horrified at the suggestion. "No matter, that is your forte and I want to hear mussar from you" insisted the Gaon.
So the Dubno Maggid thought a while and then, most reluctantly, acceded to the wishes of his illustrious host. Said the Maggid, "Is it a great achievement to be a Gaon sitting in Vilna in your little secluded small community? Go out into the world, mix with the people, and then let us see what kind of Gaon you will be".
it is much easier to be scholarly and pious in our sequestered ghettoes than
it is in the outside world, so often oblivious - or even hostile - to Torah
and its values.
This, in fact, was more or less the test of Abraham in this week's parsha. "Go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house to the land I will show you." And it was there - far from his natural environment and immediate comfort zones - that Abraham accomplished G-d's mission of monotheism. He spread the name of one G-d to a pagan world and, in the process, his own name and reputation was established for eternity. It was only after leaving home that Abraham became the Founding Father of the Jewish People.
About a hundred years ago, a generation of Yiddish-speaking, observant Jews migrated from Europe to the USA, the golden land of opportunity, to escape pogroms and persecution. With much sweat and tears they transformed themselves from rags to riches and soon came to personify the American dream, an amazing and inspirational success story. But the fact is that for the most part, as their businesses succeeded, their religious lives failed. Unquestionably, Judaism took a severe blow. Most were unable to sustain their old world values in new world America. The transition from shtetl to suburbia proved too formidable and children and grandchildren grew up blissfully unaware of their own sacred traditions.
we see this phenomenon worldwide, playing out on a lesser scale when
families emigrate or move from city to city. Displaced from their spiritual
support systems, they flounder. The bulk of their efforts are directed at
just resettling and reorganizing their lives. Putting religious
infrastructures in place often comes last - at great cost in the long run.
And on a more subtle level, the very same tests of conscience face us when we take our vacations. Away from home and our ingrained norms of behaviour, we are challenged to maintain the code of conduct to which we are committed all year long.
This alludes to the story of the shadchan (matchmaker), who suggested a young lady to a gentleman and absolutely raved about her. After their first date, however, the young man phones the shadchan and gives him a piece of his mind. "How dare you introduce me to such a girl, weren't you aware that she has a terrible limp?!" Quite unflustered, the shadchan retorts, "What is your problem, her impediment is only evident when she walks!"
It is when we walk away from our comfortable cocoons and spiritual safety nets into the wider society that we may find ourselves limping somewhat, losing our Jewish equilibrium. It is then that our faith, our values, our morals and beliefs are truly challenged.
May the children of Abraham emulate their forefather who left his land and remained strong in faith and family, going on to achieve remarkable success, both spiritually and materially.