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Lost Cause?

Thursday, 27 August, 2020 - 9:03 pm

One of my assignments as a rabbinic intern in South Africa was to visit businesspeople on Friday afternoons. In typical Chabad fashion, I set out every week with a colleague, searching for Jews. We developed a “route” – a standard contingent of businesses that we would visit each week, reaching out to fellow Jews with Shabbat wishes, Torah materials and an opportunity to do a mitzvah. For some it meant a schmooze about Yiddishkeit, for others a reminder to light the Shabbat candles.

The opportunity to lay tefillin was a key offering. One fellow was particularly irate at us for even asking. He immediately showed me the door and stated, “I know why you guys are here. And I want nothing of it. I may be Jewish but I don’t do religious stuff.” He went on to describe his “love affair” for my ilk.

I decided then and there that I would not abandon this Jew just because he was nasty to me. I would continue to visit him, but not press him about the tefillin. Initially, I simply wished him “Gut Shabbos” week after week. After a while we got a little friendlier. One day, many months later, he turned to me and said, “What about tefillin?”

Needless to say within seconds I had him adorned in phylacteries. In time, we became great friends and his Yiddishkeit blossomed. He admitted that he had been taking out all his anger and frustration in life on Judaism. Finally, he felt at peace. Judaism was not the scapegoat. It was part of the healing process.

***

In this week’s parsha of Ki Teitzei we read about the mitzvah of returning a lost object: “You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. Rather, you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him.”

My mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained that this verse is not only referring to the restoration of lost physical items. It is also – mystically – referring to refurbishing spiritual loss. If a friend – or even a total stranger – is suffering from emotional or spiritual deficit, it is our duty to provide care, direction and knowledge so they may reclaim their self and heritage. The Rebbe underscored two critical elements of this directive. The Torah expects us to reach out to a total stranger (“if you do not know him”). And the Torah demands that we continue to do so even if we see no results (“it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out”).

If we are persistent – with devotion and sincerity – in our concern for our fellow, eventually our brothers and sisters will seek out their own identity and soul.

***

My friend may not have become a card-carrying religious Jew, but he did purchase his own pair of tefillin, get involved with a synagogue, kasher his home and, in due course, send his son to yeshiva. All of that may never have happened had I decided to declare him a lost cause.

***

Let us display at least equal consideration to the spiritual needs of others as we would for their physical property. We may not know the return address for every lost item, but when it comes to lost souls, we can rest assured our efforts will be met with success.

People may be lost. They are never lost causes – unless we choose to ignore or discard them.

Comments on: Lost Cause?
9/4/2020

Ahron wrote...

A good time is Elul and a good instrument is the Shofar. You may not know the whole story but the Shofar of Boise has echoed even further than South Africa. It has been heard in the South of Brazil as well. תודה ושבת שלום!