For the week ending 28 May 2005 / 19 Iyyar 5765

Igniting the Flame, Extinguishing the Fire

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alan in MASS

Dear Rabbi,

I go to a small college with relatively few Jewish resources. While I am not yet fully observant, I am interested in Orthodoxy and read and listen to material that is taught and studied in Orthodox circles. When I talk with other students about what Im learning, I find that they are generally interested, and sometimes very interested in the conversation. The problem is that I dont fully understand a lot of what Im learning on my own, and I also feel that I am not on a high enough spiritual level to be teaching Torah to others. On the other hand, when I offer people material to read or listen to on their own, the usual response is that they dont have time. What should I do?

Dear Alan,

First, let me praise you on your effort to learn and maintain your connection with G-d and the Torah despite your responsibilities in college, and despite being in what sounds like a spiritually sparse environment.

Ideally, a person should learn Torah, pray and perform the mitzvot with great understanding, purity and insight. This applies all the more so to someone who is in a position to ignite the flame of spirituality in others. His or her comprehension and spiritual state should be as perfect and pristine as possible. In this vein our Sages taught, "If a rabbi is like an angel of G-d, learn Torah from him; if he is not like an angel, don't learn Torah from him".

However our Sages also taught, "In a place where there is no man, try to be a man" (Avot 2). If you are the only one who can have an influence in your surroundings, try your best. G-d directed you to that place for a reason and a purpose. G-d has obviously given you success, as people you talk to are interested. They cant be blamed for not making the time to read or listen to the material you have theyre under a big load.

What can you do? Keep taking advantage of the spontaneous conversations at meals and around campus to spark their interest. Think about ways to make events around learning: You can arrange a discussion over pizza or schedule a video and the like. Be creative! Even if things start small or slow, dont be discouraged. That gives you an opportunity to plan and gain confidence. Itll grow good people appreciate a wholesome alternative to keg parties.

Ill conclude with a beautiful analogy by the Chafetz Chaim:

There was once a town whose benevolent governor required that all water be filtered from impurities before use. The town enjoyed better health and a higher standard of living than all other towns in the region. Then a fire broke out. Despite the efforts of the inhabitants, the town burned down. Afterwards, the governor found water in the wells. Perturbed, he asked the inhabitants why they werent able to put out the fire. The townspeople answered that as hard as they tried, they couldnt manage to filter the water fast enough to extinguish the flames. The governor cried, "You fools! I required you to filter the water to maintain purity in normal times. But when fire breaks out, theres no time to filter. Throw water with its impurities on the fire, the main thing is to put out the conflagration!"

There is a spiritual conflagration out there threatening to destroy the Jewish people. Now is not the time to demand the ideal of purity and expect and accept only the highest standards. Every available person must give whatever Torah theyve got to put out the fire.

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