I want to share with you a dvar torah on the parsha which I think is very relevant. Last year I shared it with the Orthodox Community at Penn the first weekend of school and I found it very instrumental in spreading these ideas, raising these discussions, and promoting this type of activity around the community. Feel free to do the same with your communities.
In the end of Parshat Shoftim is the story of eglah arufah – what happens when an unidentified dead body is found in a field. The required response includes decapitating a calf and having the z’keinim, the elder leaders of the local community wash their hands over the calf and say “yadeinu lo shafchu et hadam hazah v’eineinu lo ra’u” – “our hands didn’t spill this blood and our eyes didn’t see it”. A mishna in Sotah (quoted by Rashi) asks, incredulously, why we require such of the z’keinim? Do we really think these people – rabbis, leaders, elders – are responsible for this tragic loss??
The mishna goes on to describe the scenario that probably preceded this unfortunate occurrence: some guy, a stranger, came to the local community. Probably wasn’t wearing a kippah, and he didn’t know anyone. And no one welcomed him. No one went out of their way to say hello to him, no one went over to help him feel comfortable, and no one offered him a seat at their table. Rashi in the mishna comments: “No one made him feel like part of a community.” Sure enough, this guy got turned off, left the community, and somewhere down the line he was killed. So we turn to that local community and we do hold them accountable. And we make them swear that they opened their eyes, their arms, and their hearts, and that they would never let something like that happen. And it’s specifically the z’keinim, the elders and leaders of the community, people who are the religious role models and are comfortable in the community – those are the people whom we hold responsible.
The parallels are clear. At Penn (for example, but the situation is similar, albeit on different scales, at most other colleges) the first Friday night of the year draws almost double the normal crowd to Hillel, maybe 600 or 700 people – freshmen trying it out, people just back from Birthright, seniors looking for a fresh start at being Jewish, etc. But most of them won’t come back; within a few weeks the weekly attendance drops down to half that number. Why? Because no one welcomed them in, no one sat with them, no one provided them with a friendly personal contact, a warm and meaningful experience, nor any reason to come back. So they don’t – and they join the growing ranks of young American Jews who are disenchanted and disengaged from Judaism. As the religious members of this community, we have to look at ourselves truthfully and ask ourselves: Do we open our eyes to this all-too-common phenomenon in our community? Are our unwelcoming arms and unaware eyes responsible for this travesty? Sure, it’s the first week, and everyone wants to see their friends and welcome the new religious freshman in the community – but there are really Jewish people and souls at stake. You’ll have all year to talk to your friends – but you might only have one chance to give these people a meaningful connection to Judaism.
On a final note, the word ‘spilled’ is read “shafchu” (plural) but it’s spelled in the Torah as “shafcha” (singular) – showing that while this is a communal responsibility, in the end of the day it is really each and every individual’s responsibility. Sure it’s Hillel’s and Chabad’s, and OCP/BOO/Shalhevet/Kedma/Yavneh/CJL/Mesorahs’s – but it’s also yours. If this is something one cares about (and as caring Jews, we should), one can’t wait for someone else to do it – there is no one else, and you are every much as responsible and capable, each person in his or her own way. It doesn’t take much: be friendly, welcoming, and loving all Jews – the rest is just details. More opportunities will come in due time (e.g. running “Heart to Heart” Shabbat dinners) but most important for now is to just be aware and to keep your eyes and arms wide open.
Hopefully this can be something about which our communities and each and every one of us can learn to be more sensitive. The more people involved in this, aware of this, and speaking about this, the greater the impact there could be. It is an important process, and it starts with one person and one heart at a time.
p.s. Similar to the way in this week’s parsha that the Torah excludes newlyweds and those newly housed from going out to fight, I am inclined to excuse freshman from this responsibility, as for people who are just trying to find their own place, it’s hard to open themselves up to other newcomers. Though freshman usually do have the most access to new people, and uninvolved freshman are often the ones most looking for connections – so perhaps it’s still worth pursuing. But for upperclassmen who recognize everyone and are comfortable in the community, there is no excuse.