Friday, March 16, 2018

Bar Mitzvah speech to my son on becoming a restrained man

This morning you are celebrating your entering into the status of being a commanded man. Young men today can get the wrong idea of what it means to be a man, and particularly a Chabad man. It is less about dominance and more about restraint.

To be a man, some might think is about being loud and beating your chest. To  dominate. To bend others to your will. To get what you want. This is wrong.

Our sages taught: who is a strong person? One who conquers his evil inclination! (1) To control oneself is at the core of being an adult, man or woman. Having celebrated International Women’s day this past week, in this post #metoo age, it is a good time for men to remind ourselves that our task is to be humble and respectful of others’ needs, wants and rights. We need to focus our dominating to our own base inclinations.

There is also a misconception about what it means to be a Chabad man. The modern Chabad man seems to be an action figure. Unstoppable energy and frenetic activity. The chabad man will put teffilin (ritual prayer boxes) on every man, feed cholent (a sabbath food) to every lost Jew and acquire big buildings in every corner of the planet. This is not untrue, but it is not the most important part of being a chabad man.

You read for us from the Torah. Almost all of the reading was about activity - building a house for God (2). But the first part of the portion is not about doing anything at all. In fact, it is about the opposite. It is about not doing forbidden work on the Sabbath (3).

Why the digression? Surely, ‘since the temple symbolised God’s presence among the nation, its construction should take precedence over resting on the Sabbath. Surely, action seems a much more eloquent witness of faith than merely the absence of work’. Clearly, this argument is repudiated in God’s command in the midst of the discussion about the temple work that the Sabbath rest must be observed (4). Instead of saying  “don’t just sit there, do something”, say “don’t just do something, sit there!”. To be a Jewish man requires time spent thinking, meditating, reflecting and being still.

A story is told about two Hasidim who sat down to do a “Farbrengen”. They poured some vodka into their two cups. They sat silently together for a long time during the night. They didn’t need to say anything, they knew each other thoughts. After a few hours, they poured the untouched vodka back into the bottle. This story is closer to the true meaning of being a Hasid than running around, which is a necessary and temporary distraction from the inner life of the Hasid.

However, the spirit one brings to the activity is important as well. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights links between the creation story and the building of the temple in our reading.  The book of Genesis begins with God creating the universe as a home for humankind. The book of Exodus ends with human beings, the Israelites, creating the Sanctuary as a home for God.

Sacks links both creation processes with the concept of Tzimtum, literally contraction, but also self-restraint. The Jewish mystics were troubled by the question: If God exists, how can the universe exist? At every point in time and space, the Infinite God should crowd out the finite. Nothing physical or material should be able to survive for even a moment in the presence of the pure, absolute Being of God.

Tzimtzum is the solution to this problem. For the universe to exist, God hid Himself and limited His presence in the world. That created space for the world, and for us.

This self-restraint needs to be reciprocated by humans. The making of the temple required the people to make space for God in our world and lives. It is in the space vacated by us that God’s presence can be felt in our midst. We engage in self-limitation every time we set aside our devices (pun intended) and desires in order to act on the basis of God’s will, not our own.

Sacks continues: So, for six days a week God makes space for us to be creative. On the seventh day, the holy Sabbath, we make space for God. There are secular places where we pursue our own purposes. And there are holy places where we open ourselves, fully and without reserve, to God’s purposes.

The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. Great parents make space for their children. Great teachers make space for their pupils. They are there when needed, but they don’t dominate. They practice tzimtzum, self-limitation, so that others have the space to grow.

So Levi, as a young Jewish man of the Chabad tribe, of the Kastel- Eichel- Stark-Blau clans, as a member of the Chabad House and your school communities, and as a resident and citizen of the great laid back land of Australia, go forth, and do what the Lord demands of you: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in a low-key way with your God (5). Good on ya cobber. We are all so proud of you. Mazal Tov.

  1. Pirkey Avot
  2. Sidra Vayakhel Pekudei Exodus 35-40
  3. Exodus 35:2-3
  4. Abarbanel in Leibovitz, N, Studies in the Weekly Sidra. Exodus.
  5. Micah