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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Are you pro-G-d?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 33

Avraham and Sarah were the first Jews.  They are the patriarch and matriarch of our people.  But of course, their influence has spread far beyond our people.  We are certainly not the only ones to call ourselves heirs to the Abrahamic tradition, billions of others join us as followers of Abraham and Sarah.

How did that happen?  It came about because our patriarch and matriarch kept their tent open to all.  Not just their own family and tribe.  Their message affected the entire region and has since spread throughout the world.  What was their message?  Monotheism. 

They could have been good believers, serving Hashem devoutly but keeping to themselves.  But they understood that Heaven demanded more from them.  They dedicated their lives to convincing others about the One G-d and as a result of their untiring efforts, monotheism today is not only acceptable, but thriving!

A relative of Rav Idi bar Avin died and left a date palm. Rav Idi bar Avin said: I am the closest relative. But then another fellow claimed: I am the closest relative. Ultimately, the other fellow admitted that Rav Idi was the closest.  Rav Chisda established the date tree in the possession of Rav Idi bar Avin. 

Rav Idi bar Avin said to Rav Chisda: The produce that the fellow consumed from that day when he took possession of the tree until now should be returned to me. 
Rav Chisda said: Are you the one about whom people say: He is a great man? On whom are you basing your claim? On this fellow. But until now he was saying: I am the closest!
Abaye and Rava did not agree with Rav Chisda – once the fellow admitted his guilt, it was an admission of guilt over the entire claim.

Despite the fact that they grew up together and were best friends, Abaye and Rava are often on opposite sides of Talmudic debates.  Not in this case.  They heard Rav Chisda’s ruling and realized that he was acting ultra vires – beyond his legal authority.  How were they so sure?

Because Rav Chisda based his ruling on Rav Idi’s status as a great man. Instead of judging the case on its merits, he looked at Rav Idi and said, ‘Stop squabbling in court and get over it.  You didn’t own the date palm to begin with – it was a windfall you received as an inheritance.  A leader of the community like you shouldn’t bother himself with petty claims in court.  You’re bigger than that.  Just be happy with what you have and walk away!’

But that’s simply not right.  When you judge a case or make an argument, you need to look at the facts and only the facts.  Once you start name-calling, it becomes clear that your case isn’t very strong.  If Rav Chisda had to resort to calling Rav Idi ‘a great man’ as the basis for his determination against him, he was no longer looking at the facts before him.  That move undermined his legal argument and decision.

The same goes for our own arguments in the court of public opinion.  It’s okay to have different views.  But it’s not okay to make ad hominem attacks – attacks on your opponents themselves.  Once you’re no longer addressing the simple facts of the issue, you’ve automatically lost the debate.  The fact that you’ve resorted to name-calling makes it clear to all that your argument is not strong enough to stand on its own merits.

At times, it can also border on Chilul Hashem – a desecration of Heaven’s name.  If you strive to be an adherent of the Torah and you’re talking in a condescending and unbecoming manner to those who disagree with you, it doesn’t only reflect on you personally.  You represent Heaven and therefore run the risk that anyone listening to your rhetoric will attribute such behavior to everyone like you.  It’s not right of them; nevertheless, you must take extra care to be wary of your language!

What kind of arguments are we talking about?  Many of us are great Israel advocates.  But you must never forget that you are also a Judaism advocate.  As fluent as you are in pro-Israel advocacy, you need to be equally fluent in pro-Judaism advocacy.  It’s tempting to close yourself off from the world and satisfy yourself with your own devout service of Heaven.  But that’s only running away from your heritage as a child of Avraham and Sarah.

To fellow Jews, you need to ensure you have the right tools to make a strong case for traditional Judaism.  And to non-Jews, you need to ensure you have the right tools to make a strong case for monotheism.  As we all know, Judaism is unique in that we don’t believe that everyone should become Jewish.  But we do believe that everyone should believe in monotheism. 

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Avraham and Sarah’s message was so strong that we could take it for granted.  Not anymore.  Atheism is on the rise.  Traditional Judaism is on the decline.  And we need to know how to make the case for G-d effectively.   It may be tempting to avoid religious conversations with your neighbors and colleagues, but your patriarch and matriarch would never have resorted to running away.

Many of us have no problem talking politics and debating issues of current affairs.  We don’t avoid conversations simply because we’re worried that the other person will think less of us because we have different opinions.  How much more so then when it comes to the important matters of the spirit!  That’s why you’re here on Earth – to bring down Heaven’s message to every human being.  Every child of G-d!

But when you make those arguments, first and foremost you need to make sure that you are presenting as respectfully as possible.  Not dismissive of the other person.  No personal attacks.  No name-calling or unbecoming references.  Just the lovingkindness of Avraham and Sarah.  They were successful because they always managed to kill their opponents with kindness. 

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about Avraham?  Kindness.  And yet his greatest historic achievement was the spreading of monotheism!  When you convey your message with deep, profound respect and kindness, it penetrates.  Our Sages say, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

You are a child of Avraham and Sarah.  You have an incredible mission in this world.  May you equip yourself and become an expert in the tools of Judaism-advocacy and always remember that the Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness”!

(Thanks to Mike Sadovnick for sharing your thoughts on this topic!)

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