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Torah Attitude: Parashas Acharei: The continuous Bar/Bat Mitzvah
At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people accepted G'd's Supremacy. Now is the time to accept His decrees. Accepting the Divine Supremacy is not a single occurrence. To accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom is a prerequisite for the proper fulfillment of the commandments. 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. The Jewish people are commanded to be different than the nations of the world. The 613 commandments given at Mount Sinai 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 and educating them, 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 this week's parasha, G'd instructs Moses to teach the Jewish people the laws of morality. G'd introduces His instructions with the following words: "I am HASHEM your G'd" (Vayikra 18:2). These are the exact same words that G'd used when He gave the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Shemos 20:2). Rashi quotes our sages who explain that this indicates a message that G'd wanted to convey to the Jewish people: "At Mount Sinai you accepted My Supremacy. Now is the time to accept My decrees."
However, this needs clarification. Why do we refer to the revelation at Mount Sinai as the time the Jewish people accepted 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 accepting 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 point. Rabbi Saadia Gaon was once staying with a fellow Jew. His host was not aware that his guest was such a distinguished personality, but treated him with the respect he would accord to any visitor. Before the great Gaon left, the real identity of the guest was brought to the attention of his host. 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. 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 truth, he would have honoured him as appropriate for such a great Gaon. When Rabbi Saadia heard these words, he started 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 appreciation of today."
Similarly, the Talmud (Berachot 13a) explains that we must accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom every time we say the first paragraph of Shema. In the second paragraph we must accept upon ourselves the yoke of the commandments. The great Chassidic leader, the Sfas Emes, explains that this teaches us that the prerequisite for the proper fulfillment of the commandments is to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. Even if we understand why we have to observe 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/Bat Mitzvah of the Jewish people
When parents circumcise their newborn son on the eighth day, this represents the child's first introduction to the eternal bond between the Creator and His Holy nation. However, as the child grows it needs to be educated to know and appreciate what G'd expects of every Jewish individual. When the child comes to the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the parents must impress upon the child the significance of observing G'd's commandments. In this way, the child begins adulthood with a renewed acceptance of the commandments it has learned.
In the same way, we may consider the bringing of the Pesach offering prior to the exodus from Egypt as the time of birth of the Jewish nation. On the eighth day after bringing the Pesach offering, the "newborn" Jewish nation expressed its first acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom, at the splitting of the Red Sea, as they sang Az Yashir (see Kli Yakar (Vayikra 9:1) that points out that the numerical value of the word "az" is eight). From the Red Sea they travelled to Marah where they were taught some commandments (see Shemos 5:25). This is comparable to a child who is slowly introduced to some of the commandments as it grows and develops. The Ramchal (Da'as Tevunos paragraph 158) explains that when the Jewish people came to Mount Sinai, this was, in a sense, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of the Jewish people. When they said "na'ase venishma", "we will do and we will accept" (Shemos 24:7), they strengthened and renewed their acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom and the laws that they had been taught already, as well as what G'd was going to instruct them.
In this week's parasha, we are expected to reach a higher level of acceptance of G'd's commandments. We are actually instructed to be different than the nations of the world. As it says (Vayikra 18:3), "Do not conduct yourselves in the deeds of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled. And do not conduct yourselves in the deeds of the land of Canaan where you are going to; and do not follow their customs." The Jewish people, who had left Egypt and were headed to the land of Israel, were now warned not to follow in the ways of those nations where they had been, and with whom they were going to have contact.
In next week's parasha, our destiny is set even higher. As it says (19:2), "You shall be holy because I, HASHEM your G'd, am holy". The Jewish people, who by then had reached a more mature state, were expected to elevate every detail of their conduct above that of the other nations of the world. Although they had been given all 613 commandments at Mount Sinai, G'd instructed the details of these laws throughout their journey in the desert through Moses. Many of the commandments and decrees, such as the dietary laws, and the prohibition against wearing garments with a mixture of wool and linen, are beyond the understanding of the human mind. Only someone who has reached a high level of complete acceptance of the Heavenly Kingdom is able to accept these commandments.
We all have our personal starting point in life. No one is expected in one instant to fulfill every commandment with all details. On a national level, our starting point was the Pesach offering prior to the exodus from Egypt. Our first acceptance took place at the splitting of the sea. Soon after that, we expressed our unconditional acceptance of the commandments at Mount Sinai. Throughout the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, we had our ups and downs like a teenager maturing into adulthood. Nevertheless, we continued to accept the 613 commandments as they were given over by Moses.
This shows the way for all of us. Whether our starting point is eight days old at the time of circumcision, or at a later point, when we make a mature decision and decide to accept the Heavenly Kingdom. It should always be a continuous path of gradual growth.
Most parents want their children to have some kind of Jewish education in preparation for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, in order to insure that the children will want to be part of the Jewish people as they grow up. However, it is essential 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." The founder of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, explains this verse in the following way. Parents and educators must constantly impress upon their children and students the importance of education and continuous growth and development. In this way, they will hopefully continue to educate themselves for the rest of their lives.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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