This week's parsha
Coercing Religious Observance
Abraham devised a unique method for sharing his monotheistic beliefs with the masses. He erected a tent in middle of the desert and any traveler who entered would be served a sumptuous meal which included bread, meat, wines and other delicacies. When the guest was satiated and was ready to continue on his journey, Abraham would ask him to thank the Creator for the food he had just eaten. If the guest couldn't formulate a blessing on his own, Abraham would teach him to say: "Blessed be the Master of the World, whose food we have eaten."
Occasionally, a recalcitrant pagan would refuse Abraham's request.
At this point, the Midrash says, Abraham would provide his guest with a bill for all the food which had been served: Pita – $150. Soup de jour – $300. Entrée – $500. Beverage – $100. In response to the miserable guest's protests, Abraham would patiently explain that in a free-market society prices are determined by supply and demand. Such outrageous food prices are justified in a desert, where such provisions are extremely scarce. "However," Abraham graciously concluded, "I will happily waive all charges if you consent to thank the A-mighty for the meal!"
Even the most ardent pagan was hard pressed to refuse such a proposal...
Though this story demonstrates our Patriarch's ingenuity and is a testament to his commitment to his mission of publicizing G‑d's holy name amongst the population, it begs the question: what was Abraham accomplishing through extracting "forced blessings" from reluctant idol worshippers? The enlightened world has long eschewed employing coercive tactics to obtain verbal statements -- realizing that declarations made under duress are utterly worthless. Why, then, did Abraham attach any value to blessings which were obviously uttered out of desperation?
Our sages tell us that "actions affect the heart." Abraham understood that the most effective way to influence a person, to nudge him in a spiritual direction, is actually getting him to do a mitzvah. Oftentimes, a person who lives in a spiritual void needs some prodding, and when the person is persuaded to do a mitzvah, the simple beauty of submitting to the authority of a Higher Being is highly addictive. For the person who is completely engrossed in mundane activities, the moment when he/she is given the opportunity to connect with G‑d is a breath of fresh air. This is something which must be experienced -- no amount of explanation can replace the feeling experienced when doing a mitzvah. Undoubtedly, every person is endowed with Free Choice, and can therefore choose to ignore the effect of the mitzvah, but inducing another Jew to actually do a mitzvah is the best weapon we have in our holy mission of bringing Jews closer to their Father in Heaven.
So, you can leave the thumb-screw at home, but we should always be gently prodding other Jews -- be they friends, acquaintances, or family members -- to do another mitzvah.
Doing is believing!