Thirteen years ago I had my bar mitzvah… and I’m still wondering when I become an adult 😉
Really it was the Friday after Thanksgiving, but the Torah portion of my bar mitzvah was Vayeitze (lit. “and he went”), which we read during last week this year.
A boy’s bar mitzvah is when he turns thirteen and he becomes obligated in the mitzvot (commandments). Although my thirteenth birthday was in May, or the Hebrew month of Iyar, there were some complications that led my family to delay me from leading services in honor of my bar mitzvah. In turn, I led services on November 25 of that year at the conservative synagogue my family went to.
Nevertheless, there is Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Providence) in everything, and thus as the Rebbe was wont to say, “everything a Jew hears or sees, contains a lesson tailored for his G-dly mission.” In reflecting, I see the personal lesson in having my bar mitzvah in November rather than May. For example, the portion I had on my bar mitzvah was, as mentioned above, Va-Yetzei (and he went).
During one episode in Vayeitzei, Ya’akov goes to sleep and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens. The angels are described as going up to Heaven and down to Earth. The rhythmical pattern is known as Ratzo V’shuv, which reflects in life the constant yearning of coming closer to our Creator, ratzo, and then returning to and engaging in the world, shuv, where it seems separate from coming closer G-d, to fulfill one’s mission of elevating the world.
A few years ago I started my podcast Ebb & Flow around this idea that in life there are periods of ratzo and periods of shuv (for an intro about it click here). I thought it to be a funny Hashgacha pratit when I remembered that my bar mitzvah portion speaks about this rising and returning.
In my bar mitzvah speech, I wrote about how Yaakov “went out” of his comfort zone. As a passionate sports player, I related it to one of my favorite slogans at the time, “just do it.” The Nike logo was also what I chose to be designed on the kippah for my bar mitzvah.
One of the main lessons I relearn is this one: the importance of action, of “just doing it.” Growing up with internal challenges like insecurity and nervousness, there would feel like a wall preventing me from breaking free of these limitations. This led to a habit I’ve been rewiring for years. Namely, biting my fingernails, which crippled how I expressed myself on the basketball court and in doing things that would truly help me grow beyond limitations.
Furthermore, as learned in a sicha from the Rebbe last week, the first sentence in the Torah portion informs us that vayeitze Yaakov from Be'er Sheva to Charan. In brief explanation, Be'er Sheva represents a place of serenity, while Charan represents a place of anger and hate. Yet it was precisely there that G-d led Yaakov. This resembles our purpose to go out of our own comfort zones and into the new places which may be uncomfortable, but will help us grow, including breaking out of bad habits (or as I call habits that don’t serve us). In other words, we have a task to generate peace and calm within the chaos of the world.
Although I turned thirteen that May, I feel G-d had me lead services for this portion precisely to remind me throughout life of the above lessons - that action is the main thing, to just do it, and to step out of the comfort zone.
Last week presented a situation where I was tested to live with the times.
During the beginning of the week of vayeitze I was actually home in Houston after Thanksgiving. I had just packed up and left the yeshiva in Morristown. In addition to being home with family, I had in mind to consider where will be best for me to continue on. After some consideration and feeling of procrastination, I was debating between returning to Morristown or checking out another yeshiva called Hadar HaTorah in Crown Heights. I had bought a plane ticket prior for the middle of the week, so I had a flight, but the emotions of worry were rising. In meditation a day before the flight I had, I remembered the theme of the portion, that which was my bar mitzvah portion - vayeitze. At that moment I didn’t need to know where exactly I would end up, but I knew I had to just go.
In New York, I still experienced some dis-ease with where exactly was the place to go, such as possibly returning to yeshiva in Morristown or staying in Brooklyn. The energy of Brooklyn, especially Crown Heights, was getting to me and I wasn’t sure if it would support learning and growth. Nevertheless, I was familiar with Morristown, so in sitting with the emotional mayim rabbim, I decided to embrace the unknown.
Last Thursday I visited Hadar HaTorah and pretty quickly was impressed by the atmosphere, and the pace of the learning and of the davening (praying). In speaking with some mashpiim (mentors) about choosing where to continue learning, I appreciated one simple question from Rabbi Laibl Wolf that guided me with my decision to stay in New York for last Shabbos, and to continue learning at Hadar HaTorah:
if you’re enjoying it, why are you thinking of changing?
After a few days, it donned on me! This yeshiva embodies what Yaakov, the father of the Jewish People, embodies and represents for us. Yaakov is the harmony is his grandfather, Avraham, who embodied chesed (kindness and giving), and his father, Yitzchak, who embodied gevurah (discipline, judgement). Yaakov is tiferes, the harmony between giving and holding back. As will be explained further, so too this yeshiva for me felt like a harmony of being at peace within the chaos.
Three years ago from December 2-11, I was at a Silent meditation retreat. Now, especially at this yeshiva in Crown Heights, I feel to be in a yeshiva which embodies being in the world but slightly above it. It is like harnessing the peace of ten days of silence within the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, New York. That is what Judaism is about. That is what Chassidus is here to reveal and teach about Judaism.
Embrace where you are and what you may be experiencing. Practice generating peace and clarity wherever you are. You are the creator of your life and not a victim to it (to your environment).
These past 13 years have felt like becoming bar mitzvah once more, to a higher degree, a second bar mitvzah. And so like the young man I became who spoke about a desire to continue growing in his yiddishkeit and being a leader, today, I want to rededicate this decision, only with greater kavana (intention).
I’m very excited to share the next 13 years with you, and with Our Righteous Melech (king) Moshiach with the Third Beis Hamikdash (Temple). See you (t)here