Avraham, a sauna and influencing others

Thursday, 10 November, 2016 - 2:03 pm

In this week’s Parshah (Genesis 14:12), our father Avraham is referred to as Ha’ivri (the Hebrew). Rashi cites the sages’ interpretation for the term Ivri (literally “of the other side”) as a reference to Avraham coming from the other side of the river Euphrates. Other commentators add that the term Ivri – from the other side – could also be a reference to the notion that Avraham stood apart “on the other side” from the entire world with regards to his values and beliefs (in the one true G-d). Yet we find that when Avraham departs Charan toward Canaan he takes his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, and “the souls which they had acquired in Charan” along with him. These “souls,” Rashi tells us, are the people whom Avraham and Sarah had influenced to embrace Monotheism. Thousands of these “idolaters turned monotheists” followed Avraham and his family to Canaan.

So how does a man, who is “on the other side,” different than everyone else, influence people to accept his way of thinking? The answer given by our sages is that he did it with love and kindness. Avraham and Sarah had an “open home.” Their tent had four openings so that people could enter from any direction. Once they were in, travelers were given some food and drink, a place to stay, a listening ear and a smile. After being treated so generously and with such warmth, people were open to hearing what Avraham had to say about the issues that mattered to him, namely that folks should embrace the one true G-d and reject the foolish idolatry. The result is that a man who was thrown into a furnace for rejecting the popular beliefs of his time, was able to positively influence many thousands to accept his way of thinking.

My grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Gordon, was hired as a young Rabbi in Newark, NJ in the 1940s. He turned to his Rebbe, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe for guidance on how to influence his congregants without alienating them with a reproachful manner. The Rebbe reminded him of the Russian saunas. One enters, and as one climbs up the steps the heat increases. As the body temperature rises, an attendant uses a broom-like object to slap (like a massage) the person. Now imagine, said the Rebbe, if the attendant would meet you on the street and start hitting you with the broom. You would get angry and want to retaliate. Yet in the sauna you asked for more. Why? Because when a person is uplifted and warmed they are more open to reproach and influence. This became my grandfather’s modus operandi. First you uplift and warm a person then you can even influence them to change their mindset and way of life.

Many feel like Hebrews. It’s me against the whole misguided world. If you want to change people, remember Avraham’s way. Remember the lesson of the sauna. Shouting at people (literally or on social media) doesn’t usually accomplish much. Loving and warmth, over a plate of food and a cup of something, is much more effective. Try it sometime!

Speaking of a plate of food, we had a great event here last week with Mark Hennessey and Jose Mierelles of Le Marais. Please see the pictures below or Thank you to Warren Cohen for facilitating the event.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – peaceful Sabbath!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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