September 3, 2012

Dvar Torah – Ki Titzei (Hanoch’s Bar Mitzvah)

Posted in Commentary, ethics, spirit tagged , , , at 10:40 pm by degyes

The Torah portion that Hanoch read this past Shabbat—כי תצא—is filled with an impressive variety of positive commandments—מצוות תעשה—mostly concerning proper ethical conduct, including respect for human dignity, practicing דרך ארץ, דרכי שלום, consideration for the feelings of others, plus a whole lot more.

Yet no sooner do we begin reading the parsha, when we stumble upon the obscure and perhaps troubling story about the בן סורר ומורה – an insubordinate and defiant son.

Now, the question you’re probably asking yourselves is, what would בן סורר ומורה possibly have to do with Hanoch Egyes?

The answer is, of course, not much at all.

Those of you familiar with Hanoch are aware of what a warm, caring, and kind person he is.

But the question remains as to why the laws concerning בן סורר ומורה appear, of all places, in this parsha.

What could we possibly learn from this mitzvah? From this unusual story? What do we know about בן סורר ומורה?

Well, for one thing, we know that the law was almost never actually practiced.

In fact, חז”ל saw to it that so many fences would be built around the law, that it would be virtually impossible to implement.

What’s more, the Gemara states “בן סורר ומורה, לא היה, ולא עתיד להיות”.

So why are we telling this story now, of all times?

The parsha begins with the words “כי תצא למלחמה על איובך”.

In the literal sense, the Torah is referring to an actual military operation.

But I believe there’s another war going on here, perhaps on a deeper level. What kind of war would that be? Who is the enemy? And what does it have to do with בן סורר ומורה?

Beyond the mitzvoth that we can easily identify in the Torah, there is, I believe, a greater imperative—דרישה מוסרית—without which the mitzvoth can become rather meaningless.

That is the ongoing struggle against our own aloofness (אדישות), where the enemy is the easy pull toward falling in line with a bad culture, a תרבות רעה.

Some of you may even be asking, where is the תרבות טוב today, if there is any left at all. Is the lack of תרבות טוב a problem unique to our time, or is it just a question of scale?

Honestly, I’m really not sure. Though I would propose that the lesson בן סורר ומורה teaches us today is one of individual responsibility.

That means making conscious decisions to be a good person in a bad world.

Or perhaps, a good person in a good world where you just have to work a little harder to find the good.

What a wonderful message for arriving at the age of mitzvoth.

Hanoch, you’re coming of age at time and in a place when there’s really no one who can force you to perform mitzvoth.

Why is that significant?

Because it means only you can make a conscious decision to be a responsible, considerate, observant Jewish adult, and an upstanding participant in the Jewish community.

Baruch Hashem, you’re off to a great start.

But the decision to do the right thing —now and throughout life—all too often means going in contradiction—בניגוד— to what many others around you are doing.

That challenge never stops. We face it almost every day.

In his book Notes on the Weekly Torah Portion, Yeshayahu Leibovitz draws an analogy between the mitzvot of בן סורר ומורה and the mitzvah of putting up a railing—מעקה—on a roof.

The Torah says כי תבנה בית חדש, ועשית מעקה לגגך, ולא תשים דמים בביתך כי ייפול הנופל ממנו””

Now why are we commanded to ensure public safety?

If one believes in השגחה פרטית, if God decides that someone’s going to fall off a roof, then what can we do to prevent that from happening?

Since we can’t see events from God’s perspective, we’re commanded to take individual responsibility and prevent potential harm from occurring.

This theme of individual responsibility to behave ethically can be applied to so many of the mitzvoth appearing throughout your parsha.

The laws governing what kind of property can be seized in place of unpaid debts. Treatment of women captured in war.

Fugitive slaves. Ethical treatment of animals.

Paying employees their wages on time. Handling the body of an executed criminal. Laws against usury (נשך ומרבית).

And rules governing proper conduct between men and women. And so much more.

We’re living in a very special time. Not necessarily the easiest time. But one where we can see miracles before us every day.

Hanoch, as you begin your life as a Jewish adult, remember these moral lessons that your parsha teaches.

No one—except you and you yourself— can make you do the right thing.

Of course, we’re here to help you along the way. Though starting today, the responsibility is really yours.

The parsha ends with a call to blot out the memory of Amalek, as one of God’s expectations of us in order to ensure our safety in the Land.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s always a direct reward or clear benefit given for performing mitzvoth and conducting yourself the right way.

The reward is the mitzvah itself; to walk with God, to struggle with the responsibility of being a mensch in this world.

To know that you’re constantly striving to become the kind of human being that the Torah had in mind when God gave us these laws.

I love you son.

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May 23, 2010

Nachshon’s Bar Mitzvah: Dvar Torah

Posted in spirit tagged , , , , , , , , at 5:16 pm by degyes

ומתוכה דמות ארבע חיות וזה מראיהן: דמות אדם להנה. וארבע פנים לאחד וארבע כנפיים לאחת להם.

(יחזקאל 1:5-6)

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 …

Nachshon…

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.