May 23, 2010
Nachshon’s Bar Mitzvah: Dvar Torah
ומתוכה דמות ארבע חיות וזה מראיהן: דמות אדם להנה. וארבע פנים לאחד וארבע כנפיים לאחת להם.
And from within the cloud and flashing fire, were the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance. They had the figures of human beings. However, each had four faces, and each of them had four wings …
The haphtarah you read the other day contains part of Yehezkel’s vision (חזון יחזקאל). It speaks of the חיות – the living angelic creatures – supporting the מרכבה, the chariot, one of the most mysterious aspects of Jewish mysticism.
There is much speculation in Biblical commentary – פרשנות – about the chariot’s significance. For example, בראשית רבה teaches that while the גלגלים, אופנים, and חיות הקודש represent the heavenly chariot, the Avot represent the merkavah on Earth.
Though the text states that the חיות had four faces, תרגום יונתן indicates that it was really four faces in each direction, meaning each creature had 16 faces, for a total of 64 faces. So what could this possibly mean to us?
While the ultimate meaning of the chariot and its description might be beyond our understanding, I can’t help but think that the many faces of the חיות have a special meaning for you today.
On the one hand, there are different ways to approach God and relate to the mitzvoth; and it’s important to appreciate and respect the different personalities, temperaments, and intellects that make up a Jewish community. While we’re all so different, we’re all made in God’s image. There’s an essential Godliness in all of us. While sometimes we can see it clearly, other times we have to look deeper – in others and in ourselves. Learning how to do this is the work of a lifetime. So if you find it difficult, don’t worry.
On the other hand, we all share a common foundation, as Yehezkel’s vision teaches Divine justice, urging us to avoid idolatry and immorality – the kinds of things that can undermine not only the Jewish community – but human society as a whole.
Beyond relating to these concepts as abstract ideas, Yehezkel offers practical guidance in encouraging the return to Torah as the basis for Jewish life, keeping the covenant with God both in the ethical and ritual senses.
Nachshon, we’ve raised you in environments where we believed you would have the opportunity to become immersed in the Jewish tradition, in an atmosphere of open-mindedness where questioning is encouraged, and where appreciation is given to the idea that Godliness expresses itself in different ways in different people.
Having said that, I’d like to share with you the insight that while it’s natural – and often good – to seek inspiration in the modern world – there is what to learn from those living in a more closed world – we try to respect their choices and do our best to appreciate the treasure that they struggle to protect.
A famous rabbi in America —whose name is Shmuley1 — says that the “truly great man is not one who slays dragons, but who battles his inner demons, who struggles with himself to improve his character.” This reminds me of what we studied in Pirke Avot where it says “אֵיזֶהוּ גִּבּוֹר? – הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ”. Who is a hero? One who controls his impulses. To relate this to your Haphtarah, Yehezkel’s vision describes holiness as the ability to free ourselves from our baser instincts.
This brings us to the central theme of becoming Bar Mitzvah, which is, reaching the age of individual responsibility.
It’s very easy at a moment like this to think that being popular, liked, and loved is the most important thing in life. But as you reach the age of Jewish responsibility, remember that no great person ever lived who wasn’t prepared to be unpopular, disliked, and even hated.
That’s because, as Rabbi Shmuley says, holiness means placing justice and decency above popularity and fitting in.
Do the right thing, even if it costs you friendship, status, and material wealth.
Remember that it’s better to walk alone with God, than to be popular.
Do your best to treat people with kindness and respect, even when those people are full of criticism. That’s because you’ll often learn much more from your critics and detractors than from those who like you.
Having said all that, Nachshon, you have a lot to be proud of this evening. You’ve come a long way in life, and in your preparation for this day. We’re proud of you, and we love you.
So as you start on the path to Jewish adulthood – as you become a man – always strive to listen to your inner voice – the voice that reminds you to be the best Nachshon you can be.
(1) Boteach, Shmuley. “For my son, on his bar mitzva.” Jerusalem Post Online Edition, May 17, 2006.