"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...'"
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
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
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
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,
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.