Last week, I wrote about the date on which the bar mitzvah of our son, Nison, was initially scheduled to be celebrated, but which had to be rescheduled due to the coronavirus. As this issue hits stands we will, please G-d, have completed all of our preparations for the seudas mitzvah, which was rescheduled for Thursday, June 18.
Now, as I mentioned last week, his actual bar mitzvah isn’t until the 15th of Tammuz but it is nonetheless a seudas mitzvah as he will be making a siyum on Masechta Makkos, most of which he learned this year in yeshiva.
Because this column is dedicated towards revealing the inner layers of reality, the relationship of last week’s “The Bar Mitzvah That Wasn’t” and this week’s “The Bar Mitzvah That Was” got me thinking about the concepts of yesh and ayin because, after all, with everything originating from an infinite G-d, whatever exists in this world has expression both in the realm of ayin and yesh.
The terms “yesh” and “ayin” are translated as something and nothing. Initially, it might occur to us that yesh corresponds to creation and ayin to G-d who is beyond the limitations of creation. However, even that is not so simple. There is a verse in Shmuel that states: “Keil deios Hashem — Hashem is a G-d of philosophies.” Philosophies in the plural represents two variant perspectives, one looking from the top down and the other from the bottom up. From the perspective of Heaven, G-d is yesh ha’amiti and this world is ayin in the sense that Koheles writes, “hevel havalim,” vanity and of little or no importance. However, from the vantage point looking from the bottom up, we see ourselves as autonomously created beings and G-d is some otherworldly ethereal reality and is therefore characterized by the term ayin.
While there is always a mystique about the other world and entering into the realm where time and space are suspended, G-d created a world in order that we draw down the G-dly reality within time and space. So while there is, in certain circles, an emphasis on the world of the spirit and accessing divine unity through deep contemplations, from the perspective of G-d’s will our focus should be on drawing the unity of G-d within the multiplicity of this world. In the bar mitzvah ma’amar, the Tzemach Tzedek, who wrote that particular discourse, quoted the verse that is written in G-d’s tefillin, so to speak, “And who is like you, Israel, one nation in the earth.” The Ba’al HaTanya once explained the inner intention of that verse to mean that the most beloved aspect of the Jewish people in the eyes of G-d is that they draw down the unity of G-d within the multiplicity of the earth.
What is the avodah of a bar mitzvah boy? With the simchas made during the coronavirus era significantly less extravagant, the silver lining, perhaps, would be a greater ability to hone in on what the occasion we are celebrating represents in our lives beyond the main course and the Viennese table. In order to experience life as a Jew and to develop a wholesome relationship with G-d, it is necessary to know what is expected of us at each stage in our lives.
Reb Simcha Wasserman was the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohr Elchanan in Los Angeles before it became a Chabad Mesivta. Reb Simcha, a son of the famed Baranovitch rosh yeshiva, Reb Elchanan Wasserman, Hy’d, was known to always maintain a joyful disposition. He was once asked to define “simcha,” to which he said: Happiness is attained by the knowledge that you are headed along the right path in life. You could be at the beginning of the journey and it could be a challenging trek but as long as one knows that he is headed down the correct path and that there is a destination, regardless of how distant it is, that is happiness itself. But in order to do that we have to consider at each milestone in our lives where we are and what this stage in life demands of us.
The introduction to the daily davening is the beraisa of Rebbe Yishmael that delineates the thirteen manners of exegesis with which the Torah can be expounded upon. It is brought down that the thirteen tools of exegesis, beginning with kal v’chomer, represent another year in the development of a newborn boy until he reaches the age of bar mitzvah. The thirteenth and final system of exegesis is: “And so, [Here] (nusach acher) two verses which contradict themselves until the third verse is brought to arbitrate between them.” This tool tells us that the defining characteristic of a bar mitzvah boy is his ability to remain confident and steadfast in the presence of contradiction in Torah, in his life, as well as in the world.
The entrance of a child into the realm of adulthood is punctuated by his ability to weigh between two conflicting realities and to make the proper choice. The virtue necessary to weigh two possibilities and choose wisely is to be a “tam,” as the Torah writes about Yaakov being an “ish tam yoshev ohalim.” It occurred to me that it may have been more correct if it would have said “yoshev ohel” in the singular. However, the message being conveyed is that an expression of Yaakov and a bar mitzvah bochur as well is seen in their ability to dwell in multiple tents and to realize that there is a spirit of unity at the backdrop of all of reality, regardless of what it seems outwardly.
A child could be well-mannered and academically advanced but can at the same time be lacking in his or her ability to cope in the presence of two conflicting ideas or realities. Everyone encounters situations in life that challenge them theologically. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was bothered by the torment that the Yidden in Mitzrayim underwent at the hand of the Egyptians when he challenged G-d with those fateful words: “Lamah ha’rei’osa l’am ha’zeh?”
Our lives are replete with events that can easily represent this idea of shnei kesuvim ha’makchishim zeh es zeh. Having endured this horrible pandemic, the effects of which we are still reeling from, just think about the number of families, both young and old, whose entire lives were turned upside down. Great people of the previous generation, talmidei chachamim, shluchim dedicated to adding light to this otherwise dark world, their lives snuffed out in solitude without anyone able to send them off with the proper respect due to them. It’s hard while thinking about these scenarios not to have teinos to the Aibershter.
I’m reminded of a seven-page theological letter that the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote to the late professor, author, historian, Nobel Prize laureate, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, after Wiesel, in a yechidus with the Rebbe, unloaded all of the issues he had with G-d but added that his feelings stem from deep feelings of love of G-d. The Rebbe wrote that, historically, we find such personalities as Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu who challenged the way G-d dealt with people, but they said that their questions strengthened their faith in Him and not the opposite.
This reminds me of an interview Conservative-turned-Orthodox Rabbi Herbert Weiner had with the Rebbe in 1953. In Weiner’s book 9½ Mystics, a collection of interviews, he details that he had returned to 770 to retrieve a briefcase that he had left in Rabbi Chodakov’s office the night before. A group of students had heard that he spent almost three hours in the Rebbe’s presence the night before and they looked at him wide-eyed. He recalled, from an earlier interview, that the Rebbe had told him that the open look in a chassid’s eyes is not naïveté but the absence of a kera, a split. He continued, “I thought, there is no split at Lubavitch.” It offered its followers a world in which the mind was never confused by contradictions.
I’ve been to many a bar mitzvah where the message imparted to the bar mitzvah boys is scripted, encouraging them to take advantage of the golden years of their lives, learning uninhibited by other stresses and pressures. While nobody is disputing the importance of Torah study, that isn’t the unique avodah of a bar mitzvah bachur as much as it is encountering the world with a mature intellect protected from the waves of secularism, always keeping their belief in the unity of G-d regardless of what might come their way.
This perhaps explains the presence of a variant version where instead of reciting “v’chein shnei kesuvim” it states in brackets “v’chan,” meaning “and here,” as if to say that the bar mitzvah boy himself is a realization of the third verse, which arbitrates in the face of the two conflicting ones. May the bar mitzvah boy grow up with this healthy sense of faith, unmoved by the darkness of exile, and may the ultimate contradiction of exile make way for the unifying verse of Eliyahu and Mashiach, speedily, in our days.