Global Jewish Reflections | When We Speak Up, We Take Charge

This week's Torah portion, Toldot, speaks of the dangers of silence and the necessity of speaking up, AJTorah counselor Misha Basin writes.

By Misha Basin - AJTorah Counselor | November 20, 2020

Misha Basin and friends pose for a photo at a recent AJT conference before the coronavirus pandemic.

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

The Basin name can trace its roots in Tula — a city of about 500,000 located about 115 miles south of Moscow — back to the 16th century. My ancestors were merchants, and their story took an unexpected turn when my Russian paternal great-grandfather fell in love with my Jewish paternal great-grandmother. The only way for them to be together was for him to convert to Judaism, and so he did it, marrying my great-grandmother and beginning the Jewish history of the Basin family.

I know little about the religious life of my family during that time, but I do know that my ancestors in the 19th century were Zionists. In Soviet times, we, like many other Jewish families, lost access to Jewish community life and traditions, but we never forgot about our roots — and we were always proud of them. It wasn’t just my father’s side of the family; my mother’s family also contained a long line of worthy and notable sons and daughters of the Jewish people. Today, we live in a different time, and our family works hard to follow traditions and live a Jewish life.

Misha Basin

My personal Jewish life changed in 2017 when I attended a teen seminar in Moscow — part of Active Jewish Teens (AJT). After that seminar, so many opportunities for personal growth opened up for me. I’ve improved my communication and management skills, and after two more seminars, I became a congressman from the Moscow region (part of AJT’s self-government structure) and a madrich (counselor). My new social circle has become my second family. Once you enter the AJT life, you’d never want to leave.

Within AJT, AJTorah is an incredibly important program — the center of our movement’s Jewish content. It’s how we study the history of our people and get to discover the sources of Jewish wisdom. A positive Jewish identity today is impossible without knowing what happened to those who came before us. In order to be proud of our Judaism, we must hold onto our history. Our past experiences allow us to become better and avoid making the same mistakes.

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, presents a truly mesmerizing story with so many messages you can map onto your own life. As I see it, the main idea is the ability and necessity to speak up. 

The book “Leadership Lessons” — written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and drawing from the commentary of Naftali-Zvi-Yehuda Berlin —describes a midrash (rabbinic commentary) that suggests Rebecca had a strained relationship with her husband Isaac because she felt unworthy of being his wife. That leads to her staying silent about her strategy to enable “the elder to serve the younger” (i.e. her son Esau serving her son Jacob) — and not sharing her plans with her husband.

We must build trusting, sincere relationships with the people in our lives to prevent terrible consequences. 

When Jacob steals the birthright blessing from his brother Esau, it causes a war between the twins with ramifications deep into the Bible and beyond. This is the price of silence. From this, we understand that we must build trusting, sincere relationships with the people in our lives to prevent terrible consequences. 

Thankfully, I can’t think of any stories of my silence leading to negative consequences in my own life. I always share everything with my parents, and I’m glad I do. I trust them, they trust me, and together, we’ve built an open and honest relationship that’s kept me on the right path. What would have happened if I’d remained silent? Only G-d knows.

Misha Basin, 18, is a madrich (counselor) and AJTorah coordinator in Tula, Russia.

JDC’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) was founded in 2014 by local teens, and JDC, a key investor in Jewish life in the post-Soviet space, with partner BBYO, the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish teen movement. JDC’s AJT is powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and is part of the BBYO global movement. Across the former Soviet Union, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

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