As the rabbi of a Shul in South Carolina, many interesting and sometimes odd inquiries cross my desk. From the halachik issues related to historic burial grounds, civil war reenactments (or more properly, war of northern aggression, as some refer to it down here), and the kosher status of moonshine, to the more common Shabbat and Family Purity questions, my congregants know how to keep me on my toes.
Then there are the unending sea of questions from visiting Jewish tourists ranging from whether or not there are even any Jews in Charleston to questions about the Shul’s selichot schedule (or lack thereof!) for Yom Kippur Katan. I have become pretty habituated to the majority of questions that come my way. But I don’t think I will ever get past the letters and phone calls from Christians asking for my salvation. You see, they explain to me, if I don’t wake up and embrace their messiah, I will be doomed to eternal damnation. It is touching that there are total strangers out there who care so much about my soul. The clock is ticking they tell me, and I am running out of time. They have much scripture to bolster their points and cannot understand why I find their requests both totally preposterous and slightly insulting.
I must admit that the vast majority of interactions that I have with Christians in the South are very positive! While it is probably not a good idea to generalize, I have found that they tend to have deep moral convictions, a respect for Jews and a love of Israel. When I am stopped by a stranger on the streets of Charleston and asked a random Bible question, invariably the questioner is a Christian, not a Jew. Many Christians in the South have a knowledge of the Bible that surpasses our yeshiva day school graduates. There is much we can learn from their passion and thirst for learning and growth. But there are also the exceptions to the rule, those few who seem to seek my conversion.
When I hear them begin to rev their proselytizing engines, I think to myself that it is they who need a lesson in Bible 101. Nonetheless, such a reaction gives pause to a moment in Jewish history 2,600 years ago when the roles were reversed.
Once upon a time there was a man named Yirmiyahu who petitioned for the salvation of the Jewish people. He spoke the word of Hashem and quoted verses from the Torah. He warned us that the end was near and we must do teshuva and give up our misguided beliefs before it was too late. But we laughed at him. We ran him out of town and even sought his demise. The audacity he had to make such requests of us! How could he be right?
And then the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and we were exiled from Yerushalayim. Yirmiyahu was right; we were wrong.
By no means do I seek to compare one of our greatest Neviim, prophets, with Missionaries, l’havdil. Yet, I can’t help but note the similarity between my reaction to those missionaries and how likewise the Jewish people responded to the navi’s words. With regards to the missionaries, I do not doubt the veracity of my position, but perhaps I have other beliefs and practices for which I hold my head high and scoff at rebuke just as my ancestors did in the time of the Churban, destruction.
In the Haftorah for Parashat Masei the Navi declares, “The Kohanim did not ask themselves, “Where is God?” Those who grasped the Torah did not know me, the rulers rebelled against me” (Yirmiyahu 2:8). Hashem bemoans that those who were the most learned, even the religious leaders, failed to internalize the lessons of the Torah to the point wherein they were guilty of not knowing God. As a result, the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed.
It is difficult to imagine that despite living a halachik lifestyle and being deeply committed to learning Torah (Radak ibid.), a person can be characterized as “Lo Yedauini,” not knowing God. As such It would seem that beyond the black and white mitzvot of the Torah, there is a Ratzon HaTorah, will of the Torah (See Minchat Asher, Bereishit ch. 21). There is a framework for how God wants us to think and behave that cannot be accomplished by just discharging the mitzvah checklist. Did I go to minyan this morning? Check. Did I learn the daf, daily page of Gemara? Check. Did I give tzedakah today? Check. Did I fulfill the divine will of the Master of the Universe today? No check!
Every year we pray for Tisha B’av to become the Moed, holiday, that it is destined to be. We pray for the Beit Hamikdash to be rebuilt and we pray for an end to our sorrow. But year after year it does not happen (Be’ezrat Hashem it will happen this year!). At the same time, the core of the Jewish community is by and large becoming more observant. There is more Torah learning now than ever before, we are more scrupulous on Kashrut, Shabbat, Tefillah Betzibur, public prayer, and a whole slew of other mitzvot. But apparently we are not there yet. Why not? In my estimation, there are two likely explanations. One, while the core of our community has become stronger than ever, we are losing Jews on the periphery to intermarriage and secularism. God wants all Jews to return to a life of Torah, not just the ones living in the Torah episcenters. Or two, we are still not fulfilling the Ratzon HaTorah, the deeper will and intent of Torah.
It is this first option that compels me, and others involved in Kiruv, to work with Jews of varied backgrounds and degrees of observance. But it is the latter option that I think we as a community should strive to focus on during this time of year. What are we doing wrong? Maybe we are too focused on materialism. (How many neighbors on your block have overextended themselves to remodel their house or pay for a simcha?) Or perhaps we lack patience and understanding for people who are different than us. (When was the last time that you shared a Shabbat meal with someone who was not a close friend or relative?) Maybe we have become an elitist society, neglecting those among us who are struggling. (Does the yeshiva your children attend give generous financial aid?) Have we become too insular? Or have we become too inclusive?
I don’t have the answers. But I do believe that seeking out the Ratzon HaTorah beyond mitzvah observance and Torah learning will be the key to hastening the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash. During the days preceding Tisha B’Av we must all ask ourselves, if a Yirmiyahu Ha’Navi knocked on our door, how would we respond. What would we change?