The theme of the recent Midwest convention of Agudath Israel of America was: "Apart from the world; A part of the world." Of late, the first side of that duality has been much more emphasized than the second. At last year’s Agudath Israel national convention, for instance, virtually every speaker quoted the verse from that Shabbos’ Torah reading, VaYishlach: "Va’yavaser Yaakov levado – Yaakov was left alone" (Bereishis 32:25), and focused his remarks on the necessity of preserving our separation from the surrounding society.
The necessity of maintaining our insularity from the toxic environment of modern society cannot be denied. At the above-mentioned Midwest convention, Dayan Shmuel Fuerst of Chicago told a series of hair-raising stories of the effect of Internet on frum homes and cited equally chilling statistics. However shocking his remarks were to the audience, the points he made are common knowledge to nearly every communal rav.
At the same time, an exclusive focus on protecting ourselves from the surrounding toxins carries its own costs. (For that reason the duality of the Midwest Agudah convention’s theme was most welcome.) Forced to wear metaphoric blinders and earplugs by the plethora of impermissible images and sounds with which the pervasive modern media bombards us, it is easy for us to lose all awareness of all those beyond our own narrow group.
And yet we have responsibilities to the members of outside society: gentiles, our fellow Jews, and even other religious Jews from circles other than our own. The Midrash at the beginning of parashas VaYeisheiv describes how Yaakov Avinu, after all the travails with Lavan and Esav, simply wished to live in peace, only to learn that the peace he sought is not the lot of tzadikim in this world. Rabbi Shimon Schwab specifies that Yaakov wanted to rest from his longstanding task of proclaiming Hashem’s name in the world to focus exclusively on his own spiritual growth and the chinuch of his children . That slackening in his responsibility to sanctify Hashem’s name created an opening for the Satan and led to tragedy of Yosef’s sale by his brothers.
As Torah Jews, we live with a constant tension between preserving our particularistic identity and fulfilling our universalistic mission. The solution to that tension does not lie in forgetting that we are commanded to be a "light unto the nations." Nor can it be achieved if we lack awareness of all those for whom we are responsible in one degree or another.
In order to fulfill our mission, Yaakov needs to remain apart. Without preserving our own core of tahara (purity), we cannot influence others in the ways that Hashem intended. Yet neither can we do so if we concern ourselves only with our purity and lose sight of all those "others" whom we are commanded to lift up through our example.
Before we can reach out to our fellow Jews and draw them closer to Torah, we must first convince them of our love and concern for them as individuals, and not just as potential "converts." The vast array of medical organizations founded and run by chareidim in Eretz Yisrael, the phenomenal work of Satmar Bikur Cholim in America, the tens of millions of dollars raised annually for the SHUVU school system for children from Russian-speaking families and a panopoly of kiruv organizations all attest to that concern. Our society has unquestionably produced many who have fully integrated Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv’s message that the educational imperative of our time is: "Let the Name of Heaven become beloved through you."
Yet it is also easy to cite a wide array of phenomena that attest to a growing constriction in the purview of many Torah Jews. Wish a stranger "Good Shabbos" in some frum neighborhoods and the responses will vary from, "Do I know you?" to stares suggesting that you need psychiatric help. The fact that Partners in Torah Learning is perpetually seeking additional mentors to learn with the non-religious Jews seeking a study partner is an ongoing reproach. And I would list the tepid response at the individual level to the plight of the Gush Katif evacuees – with notable exceptions such as Stollin and Sadigura chassidim– as another example of limiting our concern to those whom we view as part of our circle.
Whatever ideological or theological differences we may have with the former settlers of Gush Katif, surely they are no greater than the prophet Yirmiyahu had with the Jews of his time, who had repeatedly ignored all his warnings. Yet when the Babylonian conquerors offered to let Yirmiyahu march with the exiles without bearing the same yoke, he refused in order to be with his brothers in their suffering.
How can we overcome the tension between shuttering ourselves off from the pernicious influences of the surrounding society without becoming blinded to the existence of the members of that society? The answer, as suggested by Rabbi Elyashiv, is an intensified emphasis on the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem. The Kiddush Hashem imperative requires us to be aware of all those individuals around us who are potential observers of our actions.
The awareness that we are constantly broadcasting a message about Hashem’s Torah in everything that we do forces us, at one level, to look outwards. But, ironically, it also forces us to develop ourselves from within at the same time. A Kiddush Hashem perspective forces us to ask continually: What does Hashem want from me at this moment? What message of praise to Him is it my unique role to sing now?
When we constantly ask ourselves those questions, our core of purity is ensured.