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Acharei Mos

"G-d spoke to Moshe following the death of two sons of Aaron, when they came close before G-d, and died. And G-d said to Moshe, 'speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come to the Sanctuary whenever he wishes...'" [Lev. 16:1-2]

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) begins his commentary to this parsha by explaining the need for the prefatory information - which not only tells us when this happened, but implies that G-d's instructions came in response to the death of Aaron's sons. He quotes the Talmudic Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who demonstrates that this is appropriate, by offering a parable of someone sick with a flu.

One doctor comes in, and says to his patient, "don't eat cold foods or sleep on a damp bed." Another doctor comes in, and says, "don't eat cold foods or sleep on a damp bed, in order to avoid dying just like Mr. Smith."

Obviously, the latter doctor is providing a much stronger lesson to his patient, concerning the importance of taking care of himself. Without it, the patient might not realize the severity of the issue. So similarly, the Torah says this "following the death of two sons of Aaron."

Others have made essentially this same point, by saying that "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." Only if one looks at errors made previously, and realizes the severity of the consequences, can one avoid making the same mistakes. Otherwise, the value of the advice is all too easily lost.

This fits in with our discussion just before Passover of the importance of teaching children our heritage with warmth and a lively interest. Only recently has the American Jewish community come to realize that when Judaism is treated by the parents as merely an interesting sideline, it is all too often completely ignored by the children.

We usually focus here on the positive, rather than criticizing what others do. But I would like to share with you something I read about recently, which I found extremely disturbing, and invite you to send me your own comments and reflections.

A local Jewish magazine introduced a new feature recently, devoting a page each week to a particular Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They cover the "theme" of the celebration, be it "casino," "shopping," or "the beach," and the most memorable moment for the honoree, which has ranged from "when I read from the Torah," to "looking around and seeing all my friends and relatives, and how proud they were," to "when the synagogue part was over and I got to celebrate."

The editors introduce us "to an outstanding achiever from the community... who expresses their [sic] unique devotion to Judaism." But who is this outstanding achiever - someone who visits nursing homes to cheer the elderly, or a young scholar who has been tested on entire sections of the Mishnah? No - it is a young man celebrating his interest in soccer, or a young woman planning to attend a school for the arts, performing a dance to represent Miriam's.

Extracurricular activities are appropriate when they build upon a solid foundation, a real Jewish education - but can they replace it? It seems that we have lost the very meaning of the words "bar mitzvah:" one who is obligated by the commandments, one who must now assume the responsibilities of a young Jewish adult, to learn, to teach, and to perform. Yet those who recognize the magazine will agree that none of the featured participants thus far have demonstrated a particularly deep level of commitment.

I think I could better understand a Bar or Bat Mitzvah of this type several decades ago, when we didn't realize that many products of Hebrew schools were unlikely to develop an avid affiliation of their own. I don't think we can judge those who offered their children celebrations like these in the past, or even those who do so today, unaware of current circumstances other than that this is what all the other children are given. But how can a Jewish magazine decide that now is the time to promote precisely this sort of celebration? Isn't the current crisis in Jewish identity warning us that these represent mistaken priorities?

This same magazine recently devoted a great deal of space to articles discussing how to "keep Jessie Jewish." They focused upon Jewish education, camps, and trips to Israel as means to solidify Jewish identity. But what sort of message is sent to our newest full members when this same magazine promotes, on a weekly basis, lavish parties with "themes" that are anything other than the assumption of responsibilities, and a new commitment to Jewish education as an adult?

Introducing this new section, the publishers admitted that the children likely didn't realize the full import of this momentous day, but stated with confidence that they would at a later time. I question whether this assumption is obvious. Children learn what is important, and they learn from their parents. I believe that a parent who funds a celebration with a soccer theme sends a different message than a parent who leads a weekly discussion of the parsha around the table.

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps this is totally misdirected. I just haven't seen any statistics demonstrating a correlation between Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties and future Jewish identity (if anything, just the opposite). As I said, I'm inviting comments and disagreement. I'd like to hear from parents, if they are willing to offer this as food for thought and discussion at their tables. And I'd especially like to hear from those about to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and those who passed this momentous day just a few years ago.

Now we know the statistics for assimilation and intermarriage. We don't have merely loose warnings - we've witnessed "the death of Aaron's sons." Let's look for the lessons, rather than repeating them!

Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.



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