Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 20 September 2008 / 20 Elul 5768

Kiruv Query

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Susan in Newport, RI

Dear Rabbi,

Is there a mitzvah do to kiruv and bring Jews back to Judaism? Isn’t it each person’s personal business how to live his own life as he or she chooses?

Dear Susan,

Every person has a “right” to live his or her life as one chooses. This is a central tenet of Judaism, namely that every person is given free will to make whatever decision one wants. However, just as this does not mean one is not responsible for the outcome of his decisions, it also doesn’t mean that G-d doesn’t care about what we choose. More specifically, G-d gives us the ability to choose, but still wants us to make the right choices, which are about both refraining from distancing ourselves from G-d and proactively choosing to come close to Him.

It is for this reason that many of the commentators compare kiruv to the obligation of returning a lost object to its owner. The Torah mentions several times in different contexts the mitzvah to recover a lost object and tend to it with the intention of returning it to its owner in an acceptable condition. If one is obligated to return an inanimate object or an animal to its human owner, they argue, all the more so one must endeavor to return a person who has become distanced from G-d back to his Master. This also entails seeing to the person’s needs before and during the return in order to return the “lost” object in an acceptable condition.

Another idea discussed in the commentaries regards the connection between kiruv and charity or helping one’s fellow Jew in need. The Torah obligates us to be aware of and sensitive to other’s material needs such that they should not be lacking at least the bare necessities. If this is so regarding one’s material status, which is viewed as having only secondary importance, all the more so it applies to one’s spiritual state which is one’s primary reason for living. This means that we must try to encourage other Jews to perform at least the basic mitzvot and discourage them from the major transgressions. This is in order to help meet the person’s spiritual needs, even if he or she is not currently aware of what they’re lacking.

A third explanation for the obligation to do kiruv is for the benefit of humankind in general, and for the Jewish People in particular. This idea is based on the premise that the more people who do G-d’s will, the more benevolently G-d views mankind and the more blessing and peace He will bestow upon them — ultimately resulting in redemption and the Messianic Era. Since the Torah views all people and all Jews bound together and mutually responsible for each other’s actions, a Jew must endeavor to elevate not only his level of observance, but also that of others as well.

I’ll conclude this point with an analogy: Once a ship sailed the sea. Mid-ocean, the passengers and crew heard a menacing banging coming from the hull of the ship. They located the noise as coming from behind a locked cabin on the lowest floor. They called out, “What’s happening in there?” to which they heard an indignant reply, “It’s none of your business!” When they persisted the reply returned, “I’m making a hole in the floor of my cabin!” Alarmed, they broke down the door attempting to stop the man. To this he argued, “Leave me alone and get out of here! This is my cabin and I’ll do what I want in it!” Getting hold of him they explained, “It may be the floor of your cabin, but it’s also the hull of the ship. If you preserve the integrity of the ship, we’ll all arrive safely, but if you bore a whole in your floor, we’ll all sink!”

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