When famine strikes Eretz Yisroel, Yitzchak Avinu plans to go to Mitzrayim. However, Hashem instructs him to remain in Eretz Yisroel and go to the land of the Plishtim. Hashem assures him of great blessing: “I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heaven; and I will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring. Because Avraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards (mishmarti), My Commandments, My decrees and My Torahs.”
The commentaries differ on the meaning of the word “mishmarti” in the Torah’s description of Avraham’s righteousness. The Seforno offers a novel interpretation of “mishmarti.” He writes that this refers to the trait “that is guarded (mishmeres) to me,” which is that of chesed. Thus, Hashem is praising Avraham for being so proficient in emulating Hashem’s own mida of chesed. The whole foundation of Hashem’s creation is chesed, and Avraham emulated this trait by doing the greatest possible chesed of giving others the opportunity to get close to Hashem.
The Seforno continues in the same section to address a very difficult problem with this passuk. On two occasions in the Parsha, Hashem blesses Yitzchak, but only in the merit of Avraham. The first is the passuk above. The second is after Yitzchak’s travails with the Plishtim: “I will bless you and increase your offspring because of Avraham my servant.” The Seforno contrasts this with both Avraham and Yaakov who were always blessed in their own merit and not in that of their fathers. He explains that Avraham and Yaakov were both involved in teaching others from early in their lives. Avraham’s exploits are well-known and Seforno writes with certainty that Yaakov taught people who came to the Yeshivas of Shem and Ever. Accordingly, they were blessed in their own merit throughout their lives. In contrast, up to this point, Yitzchak did not call out in the name of Hashem, and consequently did not warrant to be blessed in his own merit. He is blessed in his own merit only after he emulates his father by calling out in the name of Hashem: “He built an altar there, and called in the name of Hashem.” Soon after, Avimelech approaches him to make peace and ends by calling him the “Blessed of Hashem.” It is at this point, the Seforno writes, that Yitzchak is blessed in his own merit.
Rav Elyashiv Shlita comments on the implication of this Seforno. He points out that Yitzchak Avinu was one of the three Avos, that he had been willing to give up his life for Hashem in the Akeida, and that he was so holy that he could never leave Eretz Yisroel. Yet the Torah writes about him as if he has no merit until he calls out in the name of Hashem! Rav Elyashiv writes: “We see from here the incredible merit and reward that one receives for spreading Yiras Hashem to the people.”
The foregoing idea raises two fundamental questions. First, why did Yitzchak, despite his lofty accomplishments, not achieve the level of being blessed in his own merit until he spreads Hashem’s name. And second, why did Yitzchak refrain from calling out in the name of Hashem until this point?
Rav Chaim Volozhin, zt”l, explains the supremacy of spreading Hashem’s name. He writes that “bracha” means “ribui”, which we translate as “abundance.” Thus, the purpose of bracha is to cause an increase or continuation in something. Based on this, my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, Shlita, explains that a person is only worthy of receiving the bracha of ribui if he himself contributes to causing ribui and continuity in the world by causing others to follow the derech Hashem. Accordingly, despite all his great acts, Yitzchak only received blessing in his own merit when he himself contributed to the increase of people who would follow the derech Hashem.
Why then did Yitzchak refrain from calling out in the name of Hashem until this point? Rav Elyashiv suggests the following explanation. Since Yitzchak’s father Avraham had already spread awareness of Hashem, there was no need for Yitzchak to do so. However, Rav Elyashiv points out, we see the great reward that Yitzchak received for doing so even though his father had already done so.
We learn from here a lesson that is highly relevant in the world today: The fact that there are some people who devote time and effort to spreading Torah does not exempt everyone else from also contributing in some form. A person may argue that since there are people already involved, there is no need for him to do so. The problems with this argument are twofold: Firstly, we see from the Seforno that a person needs to be involved in bringing others close to Hashem for his own benefit and to be worthy of bracha. Secondly, the number of people who are involved in any form of kiruv rechokim - including part-time kiruv, such as learning a few hours a week with a beginner or having secular people for Shabbos - is tremendously low, in comparison to the secular Jews who are leaving Judaism in the millions. The only possible way to stem the tide is if every Jew takes upon himself to devote some amount of time to kiruv.
Indeed a little known fact is that Gedolim have demanded that every ben-Torah must contribute some of his precious time to being mekarev secular Jews. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, issued a “call to action” to yeshiva students in 1973. He cites how Moshe Rabbeinu was initially unwilling to lead the Jewish people, but that when it became clear that there was no one else capable of the task, he undertook it with great vigor. Rav Moshe writes, “As Moshe responded to the voice of authority when it told him that he must, because there was no one else, so too must our yeshiva students. … There are no others who are qualified for the task. Under such circumstances, Torah study must also be interrupted.” He concludes that “as in charity, where one has an obligation to give a tenth of his income to the poor, so must one spend one tenth of his time working on behalf of others, bringing them close to Torah. If one is endowed with greater resources, he must correspondingly spend more of his time with others.” Other gedolim have issued similar “calls to action.” In Eretz Yisroel, Rav Wolbe, zt”l, exhorted avreichim to devote one night every week to visiting the homes of secular families and showing them the beauty of Torah and Yiddishkeit.
Great talmiday chachamim have always taken every opportunity to emulate Avraham Avinu’s efforts to bring people close to Hashem. The well-known Maggid Shiur, Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, made great efforts to befriend and teach secular Jews whenever he encountered them. His outreach even extended to children. A non-religious secretary in the yeshivah once brought her nine-year-old son with her to work. When Reb Mendel saw the little boy playing in the hall, he called him over, pointed to a Chumash and asked, “Do you know what this is?” “Sure,” the boy answered, “it’s a Bible.” “No,” answered Reb Mendel, “this is a Chumash.” He then pulled up two chairs and sat with the boy for an hour, teaching him Chumash on a level that the child could understand and appreciate. Later that day someone asked him why he had devoted so much of his precious time to a nine-year-old boy. Answered Reb Mendel, “I hope that I’ve a planted a seed that will grow years from now.” We may think that we cannot have any positive effect on unaffiliated Jews. However, one can never know whether and when the seeds that he plants now may bloom in a seemingly unconnected way many years later. Rav Kaplan was a great talmid chacham who reached great heights in his own Torah learning and general righteousness. However, he recognized that this did not absolve him of his responsibility to look for opportunities to “call in the name of Hashem.”
We learn from the Seforno that even a great tzaddik is not worthy of bracha unless he spreads the awareness of G-d in the world. Rav Elyashiv further teaches us that there is no validity to the argument that others are already doing so is.
May we all be zocheh to play our roles in being vayikra b’shem Hashem.