I just met the Rav of Brisk, Rav Chaim.
I kid you not.
This past Thursday night, I was returning a rental car at Ben Gurion airport and awaiting a ride to the terminal in a courtesy van. I was waiting together with a man and his teenage son. We introduced ourselves and I asked him where he was from. “I am from Brisk.” Really?! His clothing and beard identified him as Chabad, and indeed he was the Chabad Shaliach in Brisk – known commonly as Brest. He is today’s Rav of Brisk, and his name is Chaim Rabinowitz.
Rav Chaim Brisker.
With good humor, he allowed me to take a picture of him and his Bar Mitzvah aged son, so that I could have fun showing my kids the cellphone picture I had taken of Rav Chaim Brisker. But then our conversation turned more serious. In response to my questions, he described his role in providing the Jews of the area with a connection to Judaism and with simple loving care, Ahavas Yisrael.
The Chabad Shlichim are remarkable. Chaim Rabinowitz is a seventh generation Yerushalmi. His grandfather, a Chasid of the Alter Rebbe, the great Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, moved the family to Jerusalem more than 150 years ago. Yet, shortly after Chaim and his wife married and had their first child, they left Israel to Brisk, a city with a few hundred Jews located within Belarus, White Russia, an area that had once been home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. And they have not looked back.
The obvious motivation for this remarkable undertaking is their sense of Shlichus, of mission, of forging a connection to their revered Rebbe OBM by doing his work and acting as his agent, as Chaim quietly and reverently explained; שלוחו של אדם כמותו.
The Rebbe initiated his campaign to send Shlichim anywhere and everywhere in the world when he assumed the leadership of Chabad in 1951, exhorting his followers to “go to a place where nothing is known of G-dliness, nothing is known of Judaism, nothing is known even of the Hebrew alphabet, and while there put one’s own self aside and ensure that the other calls out to G-d.”
This was the Rebbe’s application of the mandate U’Faratzta, a phrase which G-d said to Yaakov (Bereishis 28:14) as he was leaving Israel, running from his brother Eisav. G-d framed the moment not as exile or wandering but as an opportunity for Yaakov to spread his wings and his influence far and wide.
This was the charge of the Rebbe, goading his followers – from their youth – to go out and make things better for others. And as one of those followers put it, “When you’re trained from the age of fifteen to go out into the street and stop passersby and say, ‘Excuse me, are you Jewish?’, and then ask these strangers to put on tefillin, you very quickly learn to overcome your inhibitions.”
You very quickly learn that you must always act to make things better for others.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attributes his life choices to a meeting he had with the Rebbe in 1968, when Rabbi Sacks was still a young philosophy student at Oxford.
I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done. He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?
Now, I hadn’t come to become a Shaliach [Chabad-Lubavitch emissary]. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So, I did the English thing. You know, the English can construct sentences like nobody else, you know? They can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing, than anyone else on earth.
So, I started the sentence, “In the situation in which I find myself…” – and the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”
That moment changed my life.
Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. And that was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.
Yes, it is in our hands to make things better, to put ourselves in a better situation. And it is our task to lead, to make a difference in the lives of others.
That is part of the message of our Parsha, which concludes with the law of Eglah Arufah. An anonymous murder victim is found, and the Torah requires the rabbis of the community to come forward and say, “our hands did not spill this blood”. To which the Mishna (TB Sotah 45b) asks, were the elders really the prime suspects in this murder? Rather, explains the Mishna, they are saying, “We did not see him come through town and let him leave unaccompanied and without food.”
How does this answer the question? Why is it the rabbis, the leaders, who have to say that? Is it their responsibility to feed and to accompany every traveler through town?
I can think of only two possible answers. First, that indeed it is; it is the responsibility of leadership to make everyone feel connected. Leaders must personally greet, welcome and include everyone. But, more likely, if it is not possible for the rabbis to literally greet, feed and accompany everyone themselves, the alternative is that they must set the tone and lead by example such that nobody passes through that community – and most certainly nobody lives in that community – unnoticed.
Someone once told me about how, a few weeks after they had arrived in their new community, the rabbi asked them to assume the responsibility of being the shul’s “greeter”, making sure to notice new arrivals and help them find a seat and make connections in the community. They were flattered, until they realized that this was a job the rabbi gave to every member of the community!
This is the mandate our Parsha opens with. “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities.” This is the fulfillment of Yisro’s advice to Moshe, encouraging him to appoint many layers of courts below him, lest he become worn out from all the people waiting for his guidance, and they become worn out from waiting for him.
Was Yisro really trying to make sure that Moshe had more time off? After he had instituted the court system, was Moshe then free to golf on Tuesdays?
No, Yisro was not worried about Moshe’s long days, nor about the people’s long waits. Rather what Yisro recognized was that when leadership is in the hands of one person, everyone else learns to spend their life waiting for that someone to help them. That is when people become followers, and there is nothing as exhausting as leading, teaching or parenting a group or family – whatever the size – of people who are waiting for you to do everything for them. Thus, Yisro counseled, you must create a nation of leaders! Appoint judges for every ten Jews! Broaden the scope and span of leadership and you will energize the masses and teach them not to sit around and wait, but rather to act, to do what they can to make things better.
Which brings me back to my friend Rav Chaim. As we rode together to the terminal, he shared with me the following:
“People think this work is Mesirus Nefesh, an act of self-sacrifice. I really don’t think it is. Let me explain. Many afternoons we have a “Kollel” in Brisk. What is our Kollel? At 5:00, some of the Jews we have established connections with come to our center for a glass of tea and a bit of Jewish learning and prayer. On a good day, ten or eleven Jews come. Who do you think provides them with a warm drink? Who helps them to put on tefillin, or shows them the place in the Siddur? Our children are our staff. From when they are eight or ten years old, they are there with us, welcoming Jews, taking care of them, even teaching them. Do you know what this has done for our children? Had we stayed here in Yerushalayim, our children would be consumers, sitting around waiting for us and for others to do for them. Now, they are leaders, givers, people who make life better for themselves and for others. That is a priceless benefit. That is not Mesirus Nefesh.”
We do not need to move to Belarus to think this way, to act this way. Right here, sitting next to us, living next to us, passing us in the supermarket, are people whose lives we can make better with a simple gesture, a warm word and ongoing concern. Even if we struggle with the hard work of looking in the mirror to work on ourselves and try to make ourselves better, we certainly can undertake to do what we can to make things better for those around us.
We must teach ourselves and teach our children that we do not find ourselves in situations; we put ourselves in situations. We must teach ourselves and teach our children not to follow but to lead. And we must teach ourselves and teach our children that it is in our hands to make things better, for ourselves and for others.