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This week's parsha

Accessible Judaism

After Steve Jobs died in 2011, I remember reading a one-line obituary in a mainstream media outlet. It read: “Steve Jobs put a powerful computer inside a phone and that phone into 120 million pockets.”

And it struck me then that, throughout history, the people who have left the greatest mark on the world, and who became household names, were not necessarily those who created life-changing inventions, but those who gave the public access to those innovations.

Access seems like an innocent enough word, and an uninspiring enough concept. After all, it suggests that the giver of access created nothing of his or her own, and merely distributed the products of someone else’s genius. But, in fact, an increase in accessibility has been behind some of the world’s greatest transformations and revolutions.

Just think of recent household names, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Jan Koum of WhatsApp, Peter Thiel of Paypal, Jeff Bezos of Amazon -- and the list goes on.

The common denominator among them, and the reason we know their names, is not because of their academic genius or political prowess, but because of the access they have given us all, changing the way we shop, transfer money, research, and keep in touch with family and friends.

In Jewish history as well, we remember and celebrate those who opened the gates of Jewish knowledge and experience to the masses.

Of all the things he could be remembered for -- his legendary leadership, his unique level of prophecy, his moral imagination -- Moses, or Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher), as he has lovingly been called throughout Jewish history, is often remembered simply as “Our Teacher.”

There are other Torah giants whom we remember for making Torah accessible: Rebbi, the compiler of the Mishnah; Maimonides, the codifier of Mishneh Torah; Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Alter Rebbe, authors of their respective Codes of Jewish Law. Each of these scholars, in their own day and in their own way, made Jewish law available to those who had neither the time nor the ability to engage directly with the depth and breadth of the Talmud.

Another notable example is Rashi, the most renowned of the Torah commentators. As he wrote in the preface to his commentary on the Bible: “Ani lo bati lefaresh ela peshuto shel mikra,” “I have done no more than attempt to make available the plain meaning of the text.”

In the moving preface to his book Rashi, Elie Wiesel explains why he chose to write a book about an 11th century talmudic scholar and commentator:

Why Rashi?

Ever since childhood he has accompanied me with his insights and charm. Ever since my first Bible lessons in the cheder, I have turned to Rashi in order to grasp the meaning of a verse or word that seemed obscure.

He is my first destination. My first aid. The first friend whose assistance is invaluable to us, not to say indispensable, if we’ve set our heart on pursuing a thought through unfamiliar subterranean passageways, to its distant origins. A veiled reference from him, like a smile, and everything lights up and become clearer.

What makes the great men mentioned above so relevant and beloved to the Jewish people hundreds and even thousands of years after their passing is the fact that instead of devoting their intellectual genius to the creation of novel Torah interpretations and commentary, they devoted their intellectual energy and output towards making Jewish knowledge available to one and all.

And the same is true, not only of Jewish knowledge, but also of Jewish experience. Take the holy Baal Shem Tov, for example, who became known and beloved to the Jewish people for his efforts to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to the illiterate and downtrodden Jewish masses in his time, and to uninformed Jews in future times.

And in our times, who is more in keeping with this approach than the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, who was known and will continue to be known for revolutionizing the ways in which Jewish people are given access to their precious heritage.

Who hasn’t been approached by a Chabad rabbinical student on the streets of London, New York, Paris or at the Western Wall, and offered the opportunity to do a mitzvah on the go, be it putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, shaking the lulav and etrog, lighting a menorah for Chanukah or eating matzah on Passover.

Who hasn't encountered a fully loaded Jewish mitzvah mobile home -- called a mitzvah tank in Chabad jargon -- parked on a busy Manhattan street corner, in which Jews of all backgrounds, nationalities, and levels of knowledge or observance are welcomed warmly, like long lost relatives returning home.

How many hundreds of thousands of our unaffiliated brethren have been touched by the efforts of Chabad rabbinic students -- perhaps from the Roving Rabbis program -- who choose to spend Jewish holidays and school vacations travelling the world in search of Jews looking for a Jewish connection.

The Rebbe devoted his every waking moment toward the expansion and proliferation of Jewish access points, both geographically and experientially.

In his own words to someone who once asked, “What is the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe?” the Rebbe said,

A rabbi is one who teaches his pupils when they come to him and will answer a question when it is brought to him. A Rebbe does not wait for you to come to him. He reaches forth among the people and tries to awaken them and inspire them, and tries to find ways and methods to bring faith to them.

One of those “ways and methods” was controversial in its time, but today has become mainstream: the embrace of modern technology as a platform to reach people who otherwise have little or no access and exposure to Judaism.

In 1959, this embrace of technology took the form of Tanya classes on the radio, and soon after, the Rebbe’s talks were televised around the world.

These talks reached people all over, including Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub. In his book, When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead, Weintraub recounts how his journey into Judaism began at a hotel one night as he was flipping through TV channels and chanced upon a spirited farbrengen.

In his day, and in his unique way, the Rebbe took his venerable place in the line of great Jewish leaders dating back to Moses who made it their life’s mission to unlock and distribute Judaism’s mysteries and joys to every last Jew.

And, as portrayed vividly in this week’s Torah portion, like Moses who chose not to delegate this task to anyone else and instead opted to interact with each and every Jew seeking his help in applying the Torah’s guidance to their personal lives, the Rebbe, by means of private audiences through the night, copious personal correspondence throughout the day, handing out honey cake before certain festivals, and “wine of blessing” after others, and in the later years of his life by distributing dollars for charity to hundreds of thousands of people, chose to make himself ever more accessible to anyone and everyone seeking his blessing and counsel.

And in this great effort, all these leaders resembled and emulated the very first Torah teacher of all: G‑d Almighty, and His very first Torah lesson at Sinai.

In the verses that describe the Jewish people’s encampment at Sinai before receiving the Torah, it is written, “They camped in the desert.” The Midrash teaches:

In the ownerless wilderness was the Torah given to the people of Israel. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, "It is ours"; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, "It is ours." Therefore it was given in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.

Not only was the Torah given in a place that was anything but exclusive; in a spirit of accessibility, the first word G‑d spoke to the Jewish people when giving them the Torah, Anochi, of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” “I am the L‑rd Your G‑d,” was uttered in the language of the commoner. According to the Midrash, the very first word of Torah ever spoken was not spoken in lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue, but was a derivative of the Egyptian vernacular.

Furthermore, in a stunning display of the democratization of knowledge, and even of revelation, G‑d acquiesced to the sincere request of a people (who had only recently been worshiping idols) to speak to them directly, instead of through Moses as planned.

It was there and then that the long and illustrious tradition of opening wide the doors of Judaism began, and it is through the efforts of us all to reach out to those to whom Judaism seems inaccessible and closed that this increasingly necessary tradition will continue.

 

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