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Monday, November 28, 2005

Kiruv Post

The Mishna in Avot says (3:22):

Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what is he likened? - to a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few; then the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down; as it is said: (Jeremiah 17:6) 'And he shall be like an isolated tree in an arid land and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell on parched soil in the wilderness, on a salted land, uninhabited.' But one whose good deeds exceed his wisdom , to what is he likened? - to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous; even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place; as it is said: (ibid 17:8) 'And he shall be like a tree planted by waters, toward the stream spreading its roots, and it shall not notice the heat's arrival, and its foliage shall be fresh; in the year of drought it shall not worry, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.'

The Maharal makes a tremendous point on this Mishna (Derech Chaim pg. 157 London ed.):
Thus, when a person has more wisdom than his deeds, then he enters a level to which he is not prepared and therefore, the extra Torah that he has beyond the value of his deeds are to him as poison. As Chazal taught (Yoma 72b): 'If he merits, the Torah is an elixir of life. If he does not merit, an elixir of death.' Because the Torah needs to be appropriate to him. Thus he tends towards emptiness, and when an opposing force approaches him, he, [the person], becomes totally empty. [This is as] we already clarified, that the deeds of a person are considered the root and the essence of that person, and according to [the strength of] the roots, it is appropriate [that he acquires] wisdom which is analogous to branches.

This is a tremendous idea. Instead of Torah being a prerequisite to proper deeds, the proper deeds become the groundwork for proper Torah learning. When I first learned this Maharal, I immediately thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Zt"l approach to kiruv. The Rebbe emphasized over and over again that the proper approach to kiruv is to convince Jews to perform fundamental mitzvot. The learning would come later when the Jew is self-motivated to learn but performance of mitzvot is the main goal.

This is in diametric opposition to the approach other kiruv organizations take. Most of the kiruv world first tries to convince people of the Truth of the Torah and once they are convinced, teach them how to perform fundamental mitzvot. According to the Maharal's understanding of this Mishna, such Torah can be poison to these souls who are not prepared to appreciate its teachings.

This is something that is critical to our understanding of what Torah is. Torah is not just a bunch of data that we must integrate into our minds. Torah is G-d's wisdom that we must incorporate into the very essence of our spiritual and physical being. The physical parts of our world can only become prepared for the Torah through mitzvot which sanctify our physical bodies.

There is much talk in the blogosphere regarding the shortcomings of contemporary kiruv. Perhaps the problem with the common approach to kiruv is that it tries to enter the person through the mind instead of through the soul. When a Jew is exposed to true and sincere avodat Hashem, it affects them at their very soul. A soul that is lit by mitzvot begins to develop a sensitivity to the Truth of the Torah. This sensitivity is not based on the person's rational faculties. Rather, the person accepts the Torah as True through a sixth spiritual sense; a sense that perceives the Truth of the Torah in a manner similar to the way a person is aware of their own self. Such acceptance of Torah is not subject to rational challenges nor can it be proved nor disproved. Rather, such Emunah exists in a realm that is above reason. A realm where rational challenges are not ignored but neither do they challenge the foundation of the person's spiritual life. When tough questions come up, such a person can be much more comfortable with a wait-and-see approach whenever satisfactory answers are not readily available.

May we all merit to see the age when the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9) and the forces of doubt will be no more.