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The Reluctant Shepherd

Friday, 8 November, 2013 - 2:00 pm

A boy comes home from Hebrew School and asks his mother to help him with his Hebrew homework.  She stares blankly at the page of strange letters and suddenly bursts into tears.  “I’m sorry I don’t know Hebrew,” she says.

“Don’t worry Mom,” the young boy replies, “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I can call my friends for help with my homework. Their parents were raised in observant homes. They know Hebrew; they know the Torah.”

“No, my son,” she says. “These are not tears of sadness. They are tears of joy, because I know that one day you will be able to teach your children. I embraced Yiddishkeit late, but you will have the tools to give your children the knowledge and practice of their Jewish heritage.”

***

This story happened to a classmate of mine in rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Dov Greenberg.  Today, he serves as director of Chabad at Stanford University.

The Greenberg family's involvement in Judaism began with a single act of sharing. In 1970, Dov's father Stanley was in college and Judaism wasn't very important to him. He came into contact with the venerable Chabad Chassid, Rabbi Sholom Gordon of blessed memory.

Rabbi Gordon would ask Stanley to put on Tefillin and say the Shema but Stanley simply wasn’t interested. Though very friendly, Rabbi Gordon was also very determined. So eventually, Stanley decided that the best way to satisfy Rabbi Gordon would be to just do as he asked. Maybe if he agreed just once to wrap tefillin, Rabbi Gordon would leave him alone.

As Dov tells it, this single Mitzvah ignited a spark and pretty soon Stanley and Sherry Greenberg were thirsting for more Mitzvot and Torah study...

***

In this week’s parsha Vayetzei, Yaakov sets out on a voyage. It is the journey of life. He will strike out on his own and build a family and a business empire as a successful shepherd.

However, a quick calculation of Yaakov’s life reveals a gap of 14 years between his departure from home and his arrival in Charan. Where was he during that decade and a half?

The Talmud explains that he was in yeshiva, studying Torah.

In truth, the life Yaakov would have preferred was a life of Torah study. He was an academic by nature and was perfectly content living a simple life engrossed in holiness. The yeshiva was his natural home, his obvious destination.

But, upon completing his studies, he ventured out into the most hostile environment. He entered the lion’s den of Charan, a corrupt, pagan society.  Remarkably, he outsmarted the crooks and emerged – with the family he built there – from the merciless Charan unscathed in spirit and wealthy in matter.

Yaakov was a successful shepherd, but his true home was always his homeland. His headspace remained loyal to the Torah and its virtues. Remembering that he was – above all – a Jew, he never got swept up in the corruption of his environs.

His mind remained focused on the mission at hand.

***

As I allow the inspiration of this year’s International Conference of Shluchim to settle in, I am reminded that our mission is to help but one single Jew. If I help one Jew, she will help countless others.

If I take the cue from Yaakov, I too will ‘emerge’ unscathed.

Each of us are empowered by the Almighty to make a difference. We can all reach out to one single person. We can encourage someone to light Shabbat candles; help someone mend a family rift; invite someone to a Shabbat dinner or Torah lesson.

It’s just one deed.

But its dividends are countless.

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