Global Jewish Reflections | Lekh Lekha Teaches Us to Grow Authentically

When Rabbi Zsolt Balla discovered Camp Szarvas, he found a place that would help him grow but still stay true to himself.

By Rabbi Zsolt Balla - Leipzig Jewish Community (IRG Leipzig) | October 30, 2020

Rabbi Balla and his family pose for a photo at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

“Ve-samachta be-chagecha vehayita ach sameach…”

This week’s Torah portion of Lekh Lekha sees Abraham — the one to whom monotheism in its major forms is first attributed — begin his journey. He is the first of the avot, the biblical forefathers whose lives are recorded in the Book of Genesis. If we imagine ourselves in the shoes of the sages who devised the classic rabbinic texts, we can understand why one of the tractates of the Talmud that deals with ethical teachings is simply called Avot. All the little details in the Torah’s stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are meant to teach us how to be good people and how to maintain focus in our lives. Actually, these stories form the core of Jewish ethics.

Abraham faces many challenges during his life in the land of Canaan. Shortly after he arrives there, he’s forced to leave for Egypt because of a serious famine. After returning from Egypt, the Torah states in Genesis 13:1-4:

Rabbi Balla teaches a class at Camp Szarvas in Hungary.

“From Egypt, Avram went up into the Negev, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot. Now Avram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Beth El, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Beth El and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Avram invoked the Eternal One by name.”

In his monumental and fundamental commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki — better known as the great medieval Jewish scholar Rashi — quotes a comment in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Arachin 16b) on the idea that Abraham revisited places he’d already been to: “When he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan he went and lodged in the same inns as he had stayed when he travelled to Egypt. This teaches you good manners: that one should not change his lodging.”

Why do the sages of the Talmud say that one shouldn’t change their lodging? Perhaps the following story can illustrate this idea.

Mr. Moskovitz was a Hungarian Jew who found his way to Vienna after surviving the Holocaust. In those times, the economy was such that people willing to put in honest and hard work could establish successful, long-lasting business endeavors. Mr. Moskovitz was a hardworking man, and through good investments, managed to become a very successful banker. He went on to become one of the pillars of his Jewish community, donating much of his fortune to sustain Jewish religious life in Vienna.

Rabbi Balla takes a break from working with children and teens at Camp Szarvas.

He was never a stingy man, especially when it came to philanthropy. Still, it was known that even on business trips and even as he reached an older age, he never traveled first class. Wherever he went, he always chose to travel economy. People would ask him: “Mr. Moskovitz, you are a successful businessman. You work in banking. You can afford to travel first class. Why do you still travel second-class?” His answer was very short and to the point: “Because there is no third class.”

Mr. Moskovitz was following ethics established by the first of the avot, Abraham. Even as a wealthy man, he remembered who he was and that neither creature comforts nor pleasure defines us.

Though his financial and social status had changed, Mr. Moskovitz was still himself, with the proper focus on life’s true priorities: community, education, and creating continuity for the sake of the next generation. These were the real investments of Mr. Moskovitz. He knew how to use the financial blessings he was given for the best because he learned it from Abraham.

Whenever we embark on a journey of self-development, we should also make sure to seek out those who help us remain true to ourselves.

Whenever we embark on a journey of self-development, we should also make sure to seek out those who help us remain true to ourselves so that we don’t just change blindly. When I began to discover my Judaism more deeply in my late teen years, I found a magical place — Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer in rural Hungary. It taught me responsibility and empowered me with the knowledge that I had a part to play in rebuilding Jewish life in Europe.

In this heaven of informal Jewish education, I was taught to never forget who I was personally or who we are as Jews. Our identity as a people is built on that foundation. Through Szarvas, I’ve received tools for life and an inspiration that has fueled me for decades — a commitment to engage with Jewish renewal but never turn my back on who I used to be.

Rabbi Balla leads a song session.

Abraham’s story also has something to teach about the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. The Western world is so immersed in luxury that when we are stripped of some relatively small things — like visiting fancy hotels outside or countries or vacations we had longed for — we are often at a loss. While much has indeed changed for us, we often don’t consider those parts of society that have been hit the hardest these past few months, losing their livelihoods and in some cases, the roofs over their heads. 

This global Lekh Lekha moment — leaving what we are familiar with to find something new — can force us to reevaluate our true values, helping us determine how our society can survive. We all must learn from Abraham to give up on luxury and come to know our deepest selves.

Rabbi Zsolt Balla has been serving the Leipzig Jewish Community (IRG Leipzig) since 2009 and the Union of Jewish Communities of the Federal State of Saxony since 2019. Born in Budapest, he finished his high school studies at the Lauder Javne Jewish High School and has been a staff member at Camp Szarvas since 1998. He still serves as one of the rabbis of the camp each summer.

After earning his M.Sc. in Engineering and Management at the Budapest Technical University, he pursued his yeshiva and rabbinical studies in the reopened Hildesheimer Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin (Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin), where he graduated in 2009. Throughout his rabbinical studies, and even beyond his rabbinical responsibilities in Leipzig, he has been involved with Jewish outreach in Germany and throughout Europe.

His wife Marina was born in Ukraine and was 13 when her family relocated to Leipzig, Germany. She has been involved in Jewish outreach initiatives and youth work in Germany as well. Zsolt and Marina have been married since 2007 and have three children.

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