Friday, December 5, 2008

Invite, Don't Welcome (Derashah Vayyetze 5769)

We can learn many lessons from what happened in Mumbai last week - lessons of security, lessons of politics, lessons of what it means to be identifiably Jewish in a country facing Muslim terrorism. Most of these lessons are negative - but in the funerals for Rabbi Gavi and Rivkie Holzberg in Israel I did find one positive message.

Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in The New Republic, noticed it too, and he wrote about it this week in an article entitled, “Why Israelis love Chabad.”

As Yossi Klein Halevi pointed out, the Holzbergs’ bodies were returned to Israel along with the body of Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Teitelbaum, a Toldos Avraham Yitzchak chasid. All of them were killed while performing mitzvot in Mumbai - the Holzbergs running outreach services, Teitelbaum certifying kosher food production. All of them left behind orphan children. All of them were what Israelis would call chareidi; none of them would term the religious practice of your average secular Israeli “Judaism.” None of them served in the army.

And yet the Holzbergs were mourned by the entire country, and their funeral was a national event attended even by Shimon Peres - where Rabbi Teitelbaum’s funeral was much quieter, the passing of this father of eight children much less noticed.

Yossi Klein Halevi argues, and I have to agree, that one of the main reasons the Holzbergs were so widely mourned is the fact that they made a career of inviting in the secular Israeli. They didn’t just welcome people in; they went out and invited them in.

Inviting is about more than just welcoming.
• Welcoming is saying “Good shabbos.” Inviting is running outside to greet someone.
• Welcoming is saying, “Call me if you want to talk.” Inviting is calling people up to see how they are doing.

Inviting is the trait of an Avraham, who sees three guests and וירא וירץ לקראתם מפתח האהל, he ran to greet them from the entrance of the tent.

Inviting is the trait of R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, who always made sure to greet others first. R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai was known for never wasting a minute - but this was worthy of his time.
And Inviting is a trait we learn from HaShem, who came out to greet us at Har Sinai, not waiting for us to come out of our tents first.

This is one reason why the Holzbergs were so embraced; inviting is what many representatives of Chabad do, around the world. Whether holding a Seder in India or Thailand, or offering tefillin on a street corner in Tel Aviv, or distributing jelly doughnuts at the IDF front lines, shluchim are visible to the average Israeli, they approach the average Israeli, and the unconditional warmth of that approach is the appeal.

Certainly, the shaliach doesn’t know anything about this particular Jew in front of him. Certainly, the shaliach expects something from the Jew he approaches. Certainly, elements of the shaliach’s philosophy are alien to, and possibly even offensive to, the Jew he approaches.

But all of those certainties are irrelevant; what the Jew remembers is the warm, outgoing welcome he received in India, on the street corner, at the front lines.

Human beings, as a rule, react positively to being invited in, even by someone with whom we have nothing in common.

Look at Lavan’s meeting with Yaakov in this morning’s parshah. Yaakov flees home, he’s alone and he’s broke and he’s scared. He travels to Charan and arrives at a well, he talks to the shepherds, who are not particularly friendly. He meets Rachel and falls for her, she runs home to her father Lavan - and וירץ לקראתו, Lavan runs out to greet Yaakov. ויחבק לו, Lavan hugs him. וינשק לו, Lavan kisses him. ויביאהו אל ביתו, Lavan brings Yaakov into his home.

Yes, the midrash cynically points out that perhaps Lavan had an ulterior motive, to get at the wealth he imagines Yaakov has brought. But you had better believe that Yaakov, himself, remembers that greeting. That’s a welcome!

This is not merely an academic lesson about Lavan and Yaakov, or about the Holzbergs; it is an ideal, a model for us to imitate and practice. Not so that people will say nice things about us too, but so that we will fulfill our most basic mission as Jews.

The most basic mission of the Jew, expressed and reiterated repeatedly in our Torah through story and statute and liturgy, is לתקן עולם במלכות שקי, וכל בני בשר יקראו בשמך, to repair the world in the kingdom of HaShem, so that all flesh will call in Gd’s Name. On Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we express an altruistic longing for the day when ויטו שכם אחד לעבדך, when all humanity will bend their shoulders as one to serve Gd.

This optimistic prediction is not simply that every individual will serve Gd - it is founded upon the concept of שכם אחד, of individuals locking arms and embracing, to serve Gd together.

Hence our great emphasis on מצוות בין אדם לחבירו, social mitzvot which bond people together. If all of us were to perform mitzvot individually, were to serve Gd privately, were to develop our spirituality and righteousness in a solipsistic vacuum, then that is precisely the way mashiach would come - with each group exultant in its own domain, each group adoring Gd in its own world, the globe an outsized Meah Shearim dotted by little enclaves representing every little shtiebel and shtetl.

Our sages were most afraid of that all-too-possible possibility; witness the laws they enacted regarding arenas as varied as the פרה אדומה, the red heifer, and the celebration of Yamim Tovim, laws instituted in order to prevent people from bringing their own red heifers, in order to ensure that every Jew could mingle with, and dine with, every other Jew on Yom Tov.

This is the world for which we long. We seek not to create a world in which every chassidic group and every yeshiva and every synagogue travels in its own social circle and is loathe to mix with the others, but rather a world in which the entirety of Jewry serves Gd in harmonious tandem.

If we will bond with others, if we will invite in others, then we will become שכם אחד, one group. Not only לעבדך, serving Gd, but שכם אחד, doing it together.

Sons of Israel is, by reputation and by action, a welcoming shul. We smile and say good shabbos to everyone who walks in. Our flyers all say, “Open to the public.” We have never turned anyone away by reason of ideology or lifestyle; Jews of all kinds can daven here, and they do.

But, again, being “welcoming” is insufficient; we must find ways to be inviting - as a shul, but, more importantly, as a community.

Whether that means calling up a friend and asking if she wants to come to a program, or stopping in at a neighbor just to talk, or inviting a new person to join a book club or card game, the bottom line is this: our goal as Jews is to be unified in the service of HaShem, and so we should take a page out of Lavan’s playbook: וירץ לקראתו ויביאהו אל ביתו, he ran to greet Yaakov and he brought Yaakov into his home. It’s up to us to do the same.


1. The Halevy article in The New Republic is available, at least for now, here.

2. R' Yochanan ben Zakkai is credited with greeting everyone first on Berachos 17a, and Succah 28a is where he is described as not wasting a moment. Chagigah 22a is the gemara on the red heifer, and 26a is on the measures of unity for Yom Tov.

3. We could also add a discussion of the Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:1, on one who is poreish min hatzibbur, separating from the community, by performing mitzvot alone.

4. My point is not to provide a commercial for Chabad, but rather to provide motivation for others. Perhaps I have produced both.


  1. Yasher Koach. This is a very moving and inspiring drash. Shabbat Shalom.

  2. Beautiful, thank you for the reminder to be proactive in building connections with others.

  3. I think you should change the title to "Invite, don't *just* welcome." I was very perplexed until I read the whole post.

  4. Michael-
    Technically, yes... but that doesn't make for a strong title.