Shlichut as a Way of Life: Serving the Jewish People Through Emissary Work
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum is the founding director of OTS’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Programs
For me, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days of contemplation, a time to reflect upon my life and my place in this world. Alongside the beautiful prayers, the family meals and the various holiday customs and traditions, I challenge myself with existential questions. Every year I ask myself the exact same questions, but the answers I give and conclusions I reach are not always the same. This is the beauty of life; this is the wonderful thing about questions. Questions and answers are dynamic and evoke thoughts. On a personal level, and as one who was a soldier and an officer in the First Lebanon War and was, in a sense, resurrected from the dead, I cannot but ask myself this simple question: Why am I alive? Is there some sort of hidden message here? Has God chosen me for something? What does God want from me this year? What does all of this say about the rest of my life and its significance?
I am not a mystic. I try to be a composed and level-headed person who takes a logical approach to things. But this does not mean that I don’t dwell on the meaning of life and what the future holds. Many years ago, I made a decision to work for the Jewish People – to seek the Jewish People and do what I can to preserve its existence and its future. “Wherever I go, I go towards the Land of Israel,” said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. In much the same way, I chose a way of life that is based on the notion of “wherever I go, I go towards the Jewish People”. This life-long journey is both intriguing and challenging. This voyage gives meaning to my life, and every Rosh Hashana I reaffirm my mission and purpose in this world in general, and in the Jewish world in particular.
The insight I gain on Rosh Hashana is that my conduct with God must be one of mida k’neged mida – if I ask something of Him, I should realize He wants something of me in return. If I ask God to watch over me and my family, it means I must do the same and watch over God’s people and embark on this mission and act as His emissary to protect Jewish lives. This is how I came to found the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Institute under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone. The institute trains rabbis and educators on how to engage in activities that will connect Jews to their Jewish identity in order to safeguard the future of the Jewish People.
During the course of my visits to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, I try to get to know each community and understand its specific needs, as well as individual Jews and their situation. I come not as a researcher of anthropology; nor do I come as a tourist who wishes to capture scenes of the Jewish community; rather, I come to talk to them at eye-level, as an equal and a partner, with the understanding that Jewish existence is a type of code that must be deciphered. Many a time did I read and peruse the words of former Jewish travelers – Eldad Ha-Dani, Menashe ben Yisrael, Benjamin of Tudela and Rabbi Yaakov Sapir – with the hope of learning from them, walking in their footsteps and continuing their journey among the Jewish congregations.
Rabbi Soloveichik’s words on the concept of shlichut helped me focus my thoughts on the need and the duty to choose a life of emissary work:
“The fact that a person lives in a certain time and era, in a defined place, and was not born in a different period under different circumstances can only be understood in the prism of Man as a being with a mission to fulfill. God above knows how each and every individual, with all his faults and inner strengths, can fulfill his calling… For this very reason every individual was born in an era and a place in which he can fulfill his special calling. (“Shlichut” in Days of Remembrance).
I believe with my whole heart that although the Jewish People are the Chosen People, its existence in the present must be strengthened so that its continued existence in the future will be ensured. This is how I see my mission and calling in this world and my obligation as a Jew and a rabbi – to safeguard the survival and future of the Jewish People wherever they may be, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The real crisis at our doorstep – and this is true for both the State of Israel and world Jewry – is not a political one, but a spiritual one. Jewish existence and Jewish continuity are in a perilous state, not only because of anti-Semitism, but, first and foremost, because Judaism has ceased to be relevant as a spiritual driving force for so many Jews.
Many Jews, perhaps even most of them, ask themselves the question: “What does it mean to be a Jew? Why should I be a Jew?” There isn’t always a ready answer for these existential questions. However, if we act judiciously, in the right place and at the right time, using the right approach and choosing the right words to find the answers to questions like “Why does it pay to be Jewish?”, speaking with softness and kindness and showing how meaningful and relevant Jewish life is – then we might have a chance of saving individual Jewish souls, thereby saving the entire Jewish People.
Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, Jews preserved their identity and their Judaism, and never had to tackle the question of why it pays to be Jewish. They were simply Jewish, naturally Jewish, with no philosophical complications. They were Jewish because their fathers were Jewish; they were Jewish because they had inherited their Jewish faith and wanted to pass it on to their children. However, in our time, this Jewish chain is starting to break. Jewish continuity is no longer a given. Passing on the torch of Jewish faith and tradition is no longer as simple and natural as it once was, but requires explanations and convincing. It is now considered legitimate to ask the question – “What is Judaism, and why should I practice it in my personal and family life?” This question demands a relevant answer.
The way to act in order to save myriads of Jews and safeguard the future of the Jewish People is through shlichut, emissary work. This means emerging from our synagogues, halls of learning and religious neighborhoods and going out to the People of Israel, in search of our brethren, many of whom are lost and forsaken, not necessarily in the geographical sense, but in terms of spirituality and identity.
So what is shlichut? I think this concept is based on the notion that Judaism requires of the Jew not only to redeem himself but redeem all other Jews, as well as humanity at large. Tikkun Olam is the vision; shlichut is the means to achieving that vision. The shlichut of each individual, whether it involves other individuals or the greater public, must be based on accountability for the Jewish People and mutual responsibility. The Hebrew word for accountability – achrayut – is composed of the word “other” (acher) and “brother” (ach) thus reflecting the true essence of the word: treating the “other” as a “brother”. This is the foundation for shlichut.
The concept of engaging in emissary work for the good of the Jewish People is not yet deeply anchored in our lives, nor is it one of our core values. Shlichut is usually looked upon as a one-time mission, an act to be done and completed, and not as a way of life. Shlichut is usually a short-term mission of a few short years rather than a life-long journey. Consequently, we are required to build the philosophical and practical infrastructure for shlichut as a way of life, as a vision. I truly believe that we can do much for world Jewry, displaying the necessary sensitivity and using appropriate and appealing language and relevant content in order to engage these Jews. Safeguarding the future of the Jewish People can only be achieved through the notion that no Jew anywhere goes unaccounted for.
We all have a shlichut, a mission in life, a way that we can help improve the world. As we embark upon these holy days, I encourage you to consider your own.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782