Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jews who make you feel uncomfortable

The elderly miser, Morris Levenberg lay deathly ill. A pale Mrs. Levenberg waved Rabbi Bruchman into the hospital room, mumbling that the doctors these days knew nothing about medicine. Mrs. M described how the specialist assigned to her husband had proposed that the only thing that would cure the old scrooge would be to get him to perspire.

Raising the room temperature and covering him in woolen blankets had done nothing. Even her piping hot chicken soup had left him frigid. The rabbi approached Morrie, asked after his health and then recommended that he commit to give some charity to curry some Divine favour. Levenberg nodded and, for the first time in his life, offered the rabbi a donation of R5000 for the Shul.

"Actually," the rabbi said, "I thought that a man of your means should offer R500 000, after all in merit of the Tzedokah, you will be healed, please G-d".

Old Man Levenberg blanched and muttered that he would consider R18 000. The rabbi was ready to settle on R450 000. Morrie replied with a whopping R36 000, which the rabbi countered with a R360 000 settlement. After a long pause, Morris Levenberg mustered up an offer of R50 000. But the rabbi would hear of nothing less than R250 000. The room was still, save for the wheezing of a desperate Morris L. 

"Ok, rabbi!" he yelled, "Ok, I'm shvitzing already, I'm shvitzing!"

Many people feel uncomfortable about forcing others to behave in a certain way. Your kids are one thing; you're required as a parent to instill the right values in them, even when they recoil and tantrum over it. But, other thinking adults? Surely, we should allow them the space to explore and research and arrive on their own at decisions that they feel comfortable with. 

Yet, Chabadniks hustle Jews on the street to put on Tefillin and host farbrengens, where a person may "shvitz" under the laser-focus of a rabbi who tries to push them for an extra minyan, a new mitzvah or a Torah class commitment. And people often feel uncomfortable with it. 

Well, the idea of pressuring people for commitment to G-d was not invented by Chabad. It's as old as Judaism itself. Abraham, founder of the Jewish people, did it too. 
Avraham and Sarah used to run a free motel/ deli in the scorching desert. Parched wayfarers would regularly drop in at their spot for a meal and some shade. Having eaten, they would call for the bill and Avraham would instead give them a quick shiur on G-d. Then he would ask his customers to say a blessing to thank G-d for the food they had just eaten. If they refused or claimed that they had their own belief system, he would present them with a bill that would quickly have them shvitzing. Needless to say, everyone blessed G-d.

So, you have to wonder what the point of it all was. Surely, if these travelers only blessed Hashem to get out paying top dollar for their meal, their praise wasn't particularly genuine. 

Avraham had a unique way of looking at people. He didn't see them as hypocrites who just muttered a formula so they could save money. He believed that every person intrinsically knows that G-d runs the world. But, people get caught up in the ego of their own achievements and sometimes lose sight of what is really important. They forget that they need to invest in their souls, not only in fame and a bank balance. Avraham sensed that the only reason people don't automatically acknowledge G-d is because they have gained layers of insensitivity, causes by too much investment in self. 

He appreciated that the best remedy for people's self-absorbed view is to make them shvitz. Make someone feel uncomfortable and they quickly shift perspective. Avraham knew that G-d could rattle people's confidence and realign their priorities through illness, financial difficulty or family strife.

Avraham also knew that he could shortcut the process by making people squirm in his dining room instead of in a hospital ward or bank manager's office. So he turned the screws, made them uneasy and forced them to see a healthier perspective of their own world. 

The Torah doesn't record how many of Avraham's guests later thanked him for having redirected them to a more meaningful life. But, I know a few who have "shvitzed" at a farbrengen and come to say thank you afterwards.  

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