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Torah Attitude: Parashas Acharei/Kedoshim: The never-ending Bar/Bat Mitzvah
At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people accepted G'd's Supremacy. Now is the time to accept His decrees. Acceptance of the Divine Supremacy is not a single occurrence. It is a prerequisite for the proper fulfillment of the commandments to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. By saying "na'ase venishma", the Jewish people strengthened and renewed their acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom and the laws that they had been taught. Acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom at Mount Sinai did not yet show a total dedication to the word of G'd. The Jewish people are commanded to be different than the nations of the world. The 613 commandments at Mount Sinai in one form or another include decrees that are beyond the understanding of the human mind. Throughout the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, there was a continual growth and acceptance of the 613 commandments that were given over by Moses. Teaching young children the importance of education will help them when they grow older to understand the importance of continuing to educate themselves for the rest of their lives.
Supremacy and commandments
In the first of this week's two portions G'd tells Moses to instruct the Jewish people concerning laws of morality. G'd introduces His instructions with the following words: "I am HASHEM your G'd" (Vayikra 18:2). These words are similar to the words used when the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai (Shemos 20:2). Rashi quotes our sages that this is to be understood that G'd was telling the Jewish people: "At Mount Sinai you accepted My Supremacy. Now is the time to accept My decrees."
Why do we refer to the revelation at Mount Sinai as the time the Jewish people accepted upon themselves G'd's Supremacy? Did they not already accept G'd as their King after the splitting of the sea? As we say in our evening prayers, "And they willingly accepted upon themselves His Kingdom … and they all said in unison, ‘Who is like You among the powerful ones, HASHEM‘… Your children saw Your Supremacy when You split the sea before Moses. ‘This is my G'd' they exclaimed, and they said G'd shall reign forever."
Not single occurrence
It appears that acceptance of the Divine Supremacy is not a single occurrence. Rather, as a person grows in his awareness and understanding of G'd and how He conducts the world, this must lead to a higher level of acceptance of G'd's Supremacy.
There is a famous story that illustrates this. Rabbi Saadia Gaon was once staying with a fellow Jew. His host was not aware that his guest was such a distinguished personality, but nevertheless treated him with respect as he would to any visitor. Before the great Gaon left, it was brought to the attention of his host, the real identity of his guest. He was terribly embarrassed and begged Rabbi Saadia to forgive him that he had not treated him as fitting such a great personality. The Gaon answered that he had no reason to ask for forgiveness as he had treated him with respect and made him very comfortable. To this the host responded that sure he had treated him well, as was fitting for every one of his guests; however, had he known the true identity of his great visitor, he would have honoured him as would be appropriate for such a great Gaon. As Rabbi Saadia heard these words, it brought him to shiver and he exclaimed: "Master of the Universe, we are daily aware of Your greatness, however every day we realize a little more how great You really are. I beg You, Almighty G'd, please forgive us for our serving you yesterday without the proper appreciation of Your true greatness."
Similarly, the Talmud (Brachot 13a) explains that we are obligated twice every day to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom as we say the first paragraph of the Shema. Saying the second paragraph of the Shema we accept upon ourselves the yoke of the commandments. The Sfas Emes learns from this that it is a prerequisite for the proper fulfillment of the commandments to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. Even if we understand the reasons for a specific commandment, we should aspire to fulfill it, not because it makes sense to us, but because G'd commanded us to do so.
Bar/Bar Mitzvah of the Jewish people
We may consider the bringing of the Pesach offering prior to the exodus from Egypt as the time of birth of the Jewish nation. When parents circumcise their newborn son on the eighth day, this represents the child's first introduction to the eternal bond between the Heavenly King and His Holy nation. In the same way, on the eighth day after bringing the Pesach offering, at the splitting of the Red Sea, the "newborn" Jewish nation expressed its first acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom, as it was saved miraculously from the Egyptians pursuing them. However, a child needs to be educated and taught to know and appreciate what G'd expects of every Jewish person. When the child comes to the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the child begins adulthood with a renewed acceptance of the commandments it has learned. In the same way, when the Jewish people came to Mount Sinai, this was, in a sense, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of the Jewish people. By saying "na'ase venishma", "we will do and we will accept", they strengthened and renewed their acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom and the laws that they had been taught.
Although there was an acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom at Mount Sinai, the commitment at that time did not yet show a total dedication to the word of G'd. Every one of the Ten Commandments makes sense to us. We can understand the reasoning behind each commandment. For example, the commandment of Shabbos as a day of rest is something not only the Jewish people have accepted, but the gentile world has copied the need to have at least one day of rest on a weekly basis. However, Shabbos is more than just a day of rest for the body. With it comes the elevation of the spirit that is specifically a Jewish concept. Similarly, the rest of the Ten Commandments are understandable and acceptable to the human mind. Thus it could be claimed that the Jewish people only accepted these laws because it made sense to them.
In this week's Torah portion, the Jewish people are being commanded to be different than the nations of the world. As it says (Vayikra 18:3), "Do not conduct yourselves in the ways of the land of Egypt in which you have dwelled. And do not do as the land of Canaan where you are going to. And do not follow their decrees." The Jewish people had been in Egypt and were now headed to the land of Israel. They were warned not to follow in the ways of those nations where they had been and with whom they would have contact.
In the second Torah portion this week, our destiny is set even higher. As it says (19:2), "You shall be holy because I am holy, HASHEM your G'd." We may understand that the Jewish people had reached a more mature state. Now they were being expected to elevate every detail of their conduct above that of the other nations of the world. Although the Jewish people were given to understand all 613 commandments at Mount Sinai in one form or another, G'd gave them the details of these laws throughout their journey in the desert gradually through Moses. This included the decrees that are beyond the understanding of the human mind, such as dietary laws, and the prohibition against wearing garments of a mixture of wool and linen. Only a high level of complete acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom will enable a person to accept these commandments.
Every person has a personal starting point in life. And no one can be expected in one instant to fulfill every commandment with all details. The national growth of the Jewish people began with the Pesach offering prior to the exodus from Egypt, through the first acceptance by the splitting of the sea, with the subsequent declaration at Mount Sinai of unconditional acceptance of the commandments. Throughout the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, there was a continual growth and acceptance of the 613 commandments that were given over by Moses. This shows the way for every individual whether our starting point is eight days old at the time of circumcision or at a later mature point when we realize the need to accept the Heavenly Kingdom. It is a path of gradual growth which never ends.
Most parents want their children to have some kind of Jewish education in preparation for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. However, it is equally important to continue this education. As King Solomon says (Mishlei 22:6), "Educate the young one on his way so that when he gets older he will not depart from it." Rabbi Israel Salanter explains that one way of understanding this is that parents and educators must impress upon children the importance of education and continuous growth and development. This will help them when they get older to continue to grow and educate themselves for the rest of their lives.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network