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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Who cares about your cousins? You should.


Daf Yomi Moed Katan 13

When I was in kollel, one of the highlights of the week was the Rosh Kollel’s schmooze (talk).  One day, he gathered us together and told us of a meeting he’d recently attended with his colleagues in the area.  Their conclusion: The number of those leaving the fold of halacha (Jewish practice) was unparalleled since the 1920s. 
“Today,” he said, “like the 1920s, there is hardly a frum (religious) household where one of the children hasn’t forsaken their observance!”

The result, of course, is that even the frumest of families have siblings and cousins who are not observant.  I know many people who don’t even know their cousins because their parents ‘protected’ them from having a relationship with their non-observant family members. 

Is that what G-d wants?

In ancient times, slavery was the norm.  People treated human beings as chattel, almost subhuman.  The Torah was the first legal system that circumscribed slavery with strict laws that served to make slavery an unattractive option in terms of hired labour.

Concerning the Hebrew slave, our Sages tell us “One who acquires a slave, acquires a master,” such was the high standard of respect one had to show one’s servant.  Similarly, a gentile slave had to be respected and offered a decent standard of living.  In order to maintain our respect for our servant, the Torah commands us to immediately circumcise him and invite him into the household where he would be obligated to keep most mitzvos like the other members of our family! In other words, purchasing a gentile servant was a kind of redemption from the harsh barbaric life he had otherwise known and an invitation into our civilized Jewish world, where even slaves had Divine rights and responsibilities.

In fact, if one subsequently sold one’s non-Jewish servant to a non-Jew, our Sages decreed that he was obligated to repurchase him for up to one hundred times the original sale value!  Our Sages were well aware that this individual would no longer receive the same level of treatment to which he had been accustomed in his Jewish home.

The Gemara asks: What if he sold his servant to a gentile and then died, would his son be required to attend to the matter of repurchase?   The Gemara answers in the affirmative, because every day that he remains in the gentile home he is unable to perform mitzvos!

Why does the son need to be concerned about this gentile slave that he may never have known?  He wasn’t the one who sold him to the non-Jewish neighbour, it was his father!  And now you’re asking him to pay up to one hundred times the retail value simply so that this non-Jew can do a few mitzvos?!

Clearly, the son has assumed the responsibility for this man due to the negligence of his father.  He’s not required to redeem the slave for the slave’s sake specifically – if that were the case, he would be required to go around redeeming all slaves, regardless of whether they had originally belonged to his father.  No, the obligation to redeem is in place here in order to complete his father’s unfulfilled mission.

Your parents love every one of their children.  Your grandparents love every one of their children.  Somewhere along the line one or two of those children drifted from their Judaism.  Do you think your parents or grandparents gave up on them?  Absolutely not.  They prayed for them.  They pleaded with them.  Their love and dedication never waned.

Fast forward a generation or two.   You might think that you have very little in common with your non-observant siblings or cousins – after all, you and they lead very different lifestyles.  And their lifestyle choices shouldn’t be your problem, what’s that got to do with you?

Comes the Gemara and teaches us that your parents’ concern is your concern.  If their mission of teaching their children our heritage remained unfulfilled, then you must assume that mission.  Not because they’re your cousins – that’s also important, but not your primary reason – but because you are a continuation of your parents’ and grandparents’ mission on this earth.  If the Gemara is concerned about every moment the poor gentile slave is impeded from mitzvah performance, how much more so must you be concerned for every moment your brother and cousin is missing out on mitzvos!

I have friends that have dedicated their lives to kiruv (outreach) to our brothers and sisters who are less familiar with their Jewish heritage.  But at the same time they have siblings who have drifted away that they haven’t spoken to in years!  The message of the Gemara is that ‘charity begins at home.’


It’s time to reach out to your siblings and cousins – first, second, third, it doesn’t matter – and teach them the beauty of our heritage.  It’s your obligation because it was your parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ mission.  Reach out today – who knows?  You might even find that you have a lot more in common with them than you ever imagined!