Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim (5769)
A story is told about the great tzaddik (righteous person), Rabbi Avrohom Bornstein of Sochatshov zt”l (1839-1910), who was known to possess an extremely sharp mind even as a little child. One Yom Kippur morning, when he was but a lad of five, he was fasting and praying in the shul with all the adults until his father instructed him to go home and take something to eat. [Children under the age of bar/bas mitzvah are not required to fast the entire day.] When he returned to shul, his father asked him if he had recited Kiddush before he ate. [The Torah commands us to recite the Kiddush - a blessing traditionally made over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbos or Jewish holiday – before partaking of the meal.] The young boy replied that he did not recite the Kiddush – and gave his father the following brilliant explanation: The Torah and its mitzvos (commandments) are really only obligatory for adults over the age of bar/bas mitzvah. It is Rabbinic custom to obligate young children as well as a form of “chinuch”, or training – i.e. to train the children and have them practice performing the commandments in their youth so that they should be well-versed and seasoned in their performance by the time they reach Jewish adulthood. If this is so, then there should be no Rabbinical obligation to “train” a young child who needs to eat on Yom Kippur in the practice of reciting Kiddush, since by the time he reaches bar mitzvah, he will be of the age to fast the entire day and never be in need of reciting the Kiddush!
This story, which deals primarily with the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur (the source of which can be found in this week’s double Torah portion – see Leviticus 16:29), underscores what I believe is one of the biggest, and most tragic, “paradoxes” in modern Jewish life in North America today.
We are all aware of the now-common phenomenon of the modern bar/bas mitzvah, where the young boy or girl will meet with the rabbi or chazzan of the congregation for a few weeks or months before the “big day”, learning about various Jewish traditions and rituals as well as preparing to read publicly from the Torah. Then the day comes, and after it’s over, the young Jewish “adult” can finally breathe a sigh of relief now that he/she “graduated” and no longer has to learn with the rabbi or read from the Torah. As the old joke goes:
A Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi are taking a walk together in the woods. The priest laments that he can’t get the pigeons out of his Church; the minister complains that he can’t get rid of the mice. The rabbi confides that he managed to solve his pigeon and mice problems. They ask how, and he explains,
“I don’t think it will help you, but one Saturday I got together all of the pigeons and the mice in the synagogue and bar-mitzvahed them … and they never came back.
Which is all so ironic when you consider that, in reality, all the learning and chanting and mitzvos that children do before their bar/bas mitzvah is only training and practice for the “real thing” i.e. performing the commandments as a Jewish adult, when it really counts!
Imagine a young skier who practices with a top trainer every single day without fail for three long years just to get into top shape for the upcoming Vancouver Olympics … and then decides to skip the actual games! We would think he was crazy – after all, weren’t all those trial runs on the slopes meant to be training for the real thing?!
Well, isn’t that what happens with our children as well? We train our kids real hard before their bar/bas mitzvah, making sure that they practice their Torah reading and learn all about the Torah and the Jewish traditions - and prodding them to do their very best, as any good Olympic trainer would. Yet when the time comes for them to put all that training to good use and to read from the Torah and perform the mitzvahs that they learned about as a Jewish adult, they no longer show up!
As the brilliant young Avraham Bornstein taught his father - and all of us - in the above story … there’s no point in having a child practice a ritual he has no intention of performing when he becomes an adult!
A rabbi I know recently shared with me a novel interpretation of the very strange blessing traditionally given to a Jewish baby by all who are present at his circumcision: “Just as he has entered into the ‘bris’ (covenant), so may he enter into the study of Torah, the marriage canopy, and the performance of good deeds.”
He explained that, tragically, for many, if not most, Jews in North America today, the bris is the first - and likely last - time their Hebrew name will ever be used or even mentioned in public … that is, of course, until their funeral when it will once again be mentioned. So all those present at the circumcision wish the Jewish child that just as his name was used today, when he was but a little baby and “underage”, so too should he merit to stay involved in Jewish life and use his Hebrew name as a Jewish “adult” and beyond, when it really counts – and not to have to wait until it’s too late before he uses it again.
Hmmm ….. something to think about ….