When the famed Gaon of Vilna became older, his health began to deteriorate. Perturbed by his weakness, he felt that the only person that could alleviate his suffering would be the Maggid of Dubno, whose fame as a preacher had spread. The Gaon sent the Maggid a letter asking him to refresh the Gaon’s mind and spirit with some of his famous parables, to which the Maggid gladly accepted.
The Maggid reached Vilna and entered the house of the Gaon. The Vilna Gaon said to him, “I am told that you are a famous Maggid who can speak to the hearts of those who listen. From time to time, like anyone else, I am in need of admonition. Therefore, I beg of you, give me a lesson in ethics, for I need it badly.”
The Maggid, never at a loss for words, could not figure out how to appropriately give proper Musar. How could he give rebuke to the Vilna Gaon, who would not only spend less than four minutes each year not dedicated to the study of Torah, but who was said to be on the level of a Rishon?
After a few minutes of thinking, the Maggid mustered his courage and proceeded to raise a difficulty in this week’s Parashah.
Hashem tells Avraham Avinu that He would save the entire city of Sedom,“Im Emtza ViSdom Chamishim Tzaddikim BeToch HaIr,” “If I find in Sedom fifty righteous individuals in the midst of the city” (BeReishit 18:26). The Dubner Maggid notes that the word BeToch seems unnecessary; Hashem could have made this conditional on finding fifty righteous people, “BeIr,” in the city. What is gained by the saying, “Betoch HaIr,” in the midst of the city?
The Dubner Maggid answered that Hashem was telling Avraham the following message: “It is not pleasing to Me to see righteous men living in solitude and poring over My sacred Torah in the seclusion of their homes. I need men who are outstanding, but who will not stand apart from their neighbors. I need men who live in the very midst of the city, not only in body but also in spirit, who will devote their energies to being a good influence on their fellow man and who will work to ensure that the entire community should live by my commandments.”
The Vilna Gaon sadly nodded his head, for the reprimand found the mark. This message is exactly what distinguishes Avraham Avinu from Noach. Noach was building his ark for one hundred and twenty years in order to allow the wicked to repent. Rav Shimon Schwaab notes that there was not one individual that ended up going into the ark with Noach. Noach, who is a Tzaddik and a Tamim (BeReishit 6:9), did not successfully reach out and positively influence even one individual. However, just as the wicked people in his generation cared only about themselves and therefore stole from one another and mistreated each other, so did Noach treat his worship of God. He was worried about his own Avodat Hashem and not that of others. Rav Schwaab explains that this is the intent of Rashi’s words, “Lefi Doro Hayah Tzaddik,” “Based on his generation was he righteous” (Rashi 6:9 s.v. BeDorotav). Noach was a Tzaddik in the same way that his generation was wicked—it was all about him. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, made it his life mission to reach out and publicize the oneness and greatness of Hashem.
Avraham Avinu knew how to be a Tzaddik BeToch HaIr. We see in Parashat Lech Lecha how Avraham Avinu converted the men (Bereishit 12:5 Rashi s.v. Asher Asu).
Additionally, the Gemara (Sotah 10a-10b) explains that the Pasuk in our Parashah which states “VaYikra Sham BeSheim Hashem Keil Olam,” “And he proclaimed there the name of Hashem, God of the Universe” (BeReishit 21:33), really should be understood that he, Avraham, taught “the name of Hashem” to others. When his guests began to bless and thank him for the food and drink that they consumed, he would tell them, “Is it my food that you consumed? No! It was Hashem’s! Thank Him and praise Him.”
Very often, the word Kiruv scares us. We don’t want to proselytize because we think it is arrogant or condescending. However, we must realize that being a Tzaddik BeToch HaIr does not mean that one has to go out looking for people to influence.
Granted, Avraham Avinu converted the men. However, he also was the ultimate Machnis Orei’ach. He sat outside and hoped to invite guests in; he enjoyed talking to all types of people.
If we look, talk, and act in a dignified manner, people will naturally be drawn to what our religion is all about. The way we talk to people, the way in which we conduct ourselves in public, and the care we have for other individuals, regardless of their religious standing, is the best way to insure that we are living up to Hashem’s charge of being Tzaddikim BeToch HaIr.