Before Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin passed away, he made it known that his students should transfer their allegiance to Reb Mordechai of Nischiz. As each of Rabbi Shlomo’s disciples came to Karlin after the sage’s passing, they were given this advice and made their way to Nischiz.

One of Reb Shlomo’s students was Reb Uri, known as “the fiery one” because of his ardent love of G‑d and fervid character. He also set out for Nischiz and arrived at a time when Reb Mordechai was receiving visitors. With his spiritual insight, Reb Uri perceived that among those calling on the Rebbe was a man who had just committed a grave sin. This man had merely come to inquire about a business matter and to seek a blessing.

Reb Mordechai received this man warmly. As they were talking, Reb Mordechai sensed Reb Uri seething with anger. The disciple was thinking: How could this man approach the Rebbe without repenting? Before Reb Uri could speak, Reb Mordechai ordered him to leave the room, and continued talking cordially to his guest.

Reb Uri, dismayed at being sent away by the man he had hoped would agree to become his new spiritual guide, went to one of the synagogues in town to think. Shortly afterwards, Reb Mordechai sent for him. “Don’t you think I saw what you saw?” he asked Reb Uri. “I also knew the severity of his sin. But this is why Reb Shlomo sent you here: so that you should learn how to love your fellow man. If your feelings of love aren’t powerful enough that you want to embrace even a man who has sinned, you are lacking. Moreover, this is the best way to spur a person to repentance. When you reach out to a sinner with love, he will naturally improve his conduct.”

Reb Uri had been able to see behind the visitor’s physical appearance and perceive his spiritual faults, but Reb Mordechai had looked even deeper. He recognized the other person’s G‑dly core and understood his potential for good.

Parshas Ki Sissa

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Sissa, speaks about the sin of the Golden Calf, and the Haftorah which echoes the message of the Torah reading, speaks of the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of the false deity, Baal.

In that era, the majority of the Jewish people were worshipers of the Baal. Nevertheless, they did not renounce their ties to their Jewish heritage entirely. Instead, they would alternate between these two forms of worship, at times following the Torah’s guidelines, and at times reverting to paganism.

The prophet Elijah reproached the people: “How long will you straddle the fence? If G‑d is the L‑rd follow Him, and if it is Baal, then follow it.”

The people remained silent, and then Elijah proposed a test. The prophets of Baal would offer a bull to Baal, while Elijah would offer a bull to G‑d. Fire would not be kindled under either sacrifice. Whichever deity answered with fire from heaven would be accepted.

The people and the prophets of Baal agreed to this test, and the two bulls were sacrificed. The prophets of Baal were forlorn, as no answer came to their calls. And when Elijah asked for G‑d to answer him, a fire issued forth from heaven. When the people saw this miracle, they all joined forth proclaiming in unison: “G‑d is the L‑rd.”

The challenge Elijah posed to the people is worthy of consideration: How could he tell them: “If it is Baal, follow Baal”? Seemingly, it is better for a person to be “straddling the fence” than to serve Baal entirely. Certainly, straddling the fence is not a desirable state, but for a person who is not ready to make a total commitment, it has certain advantages. He is not totally divorced from his Jewish heritage. The door is open for him at all times, and sometimes he even enters it. Why should Elijah tell such a person to follow Baal?

There are, however, disadvantages in straddling the fence that are powerful enough to motivate Elijah’s statement. First of all, a person straddling the fence will find it very difficult to ever make a sincere commitment to Judaism. When a person serves Baal wholeheartedly, he may be making a serious error, but he is sincere about his spiritual search. And so, there is the possibility that he will realize that his service is misguided and he may seek other alternatives.

When, however, a person straddles the fence, he is not taking either approach seriously. Were he to be sincere about serving either G‑d or the Baal, he would see that the worship of the two cannot coexsit. But because such a person lacks such sincerity, it will be very difficult for him to ever realize his error. He is likely to continue straddling the fence forever.

Another difficulty arises in the image he presents to others. When a person is a sincere believer in Baal, it is uncertain whether he will convince anyone else to follow him. Jews are unlikely to opt for such an approach. The complacent middle path of straddling the fence, however, is socially acceptable and may seem attractive to others.

Elijah was able to motivate the Jews to “get off the fence.” His own zealous commitment to facing the truth caused the nation as a whole to seek truth and accept a confrontation. And through that confrontation, it was clearly established that “G‑d is the L‑rd.”

Looking to the Horizon

In one of the prophecies of the Redemption, we are promised: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day, and he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” The commentaries interpret the verse to mean that children will turn the hearts of their parents — i.e., they will awaken within their hearts an earnest desire to turn to G‑d — and this will spur the coming of the Redemption.

This is not a theoretical issue but a motif that is at work in many homes today. For as young families are showing an interest in having and raising children, they realize that they must provide them with spiritual content in their lives. And as a result, the parents themselves are becoming more spiritually inspired. As they teach their children, they themselves learn, and together they approach the ultimate purpose of all mankind, the coming of Mashiach.