A father's message to his son for his bar mitzvah

As you navigate the world as a Jew, remember that the two most important traits of being a mensch are to learn and internalize two things: empathy and self-control.

 THE AUTHOR and his son. (photo credit: Wexler family)
THE AUTHOR and his son.
(photo credit: Wexler family)

Dearest Nadav Ya’akov,

You are now a Bar Mitzvah and take your place, along with your parents and grandparents, as a full member of the Jewish people. All the privileges and obligations of a Jew now fall upon you. I want to take a few minutes to dwell upon some things Mommy and I hope you have picked up and internalized thus far during your short stay with us:

Never forget that we are human beings even before we are Jews. It doesn’t sound frum, but it’s true. God did not give the Torah to Jews, it was our acceptance of the Torah that “made” us Jews. Let the Torah serve as the prism through which you understand yourself and your humanity. We often wander through life as strangers to our own selves because it is usually better than meeting that person. I would like you to take the opportunity of your bar mitzvah to meet yourself and make any course corrections that may be necessary!

No more than 130 generations separate you from that moment when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and declared “Na’aseh ve’ nishma,” and less than 80 generations have passed since the destruction of Jerusalem. Those rocks of Sinai and Jerusalem – the acceptance of the Torah and our oath not to forget Jerusalem – became the twin foundations of who we are as Jews. They have animated the generations before us to lead us to this very moment right now. Let that sink in...

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Empathy and self-control

As you navigate the world as a Jew, remember that the two most important traits of being a mensch are to learn and internalize two things: empathy and self-control. Empathy is a fancy word for feeling the emotions of others. Author David Foster Wallace once said that we tend to see the world as what’s before us, after us, and around us. But it’s always around “us.” Empathy means that for a few brief moments, you take yourself out of your own head and put yourself into another’s. It requires you to see the world through their eyes and experience reality as they would. By understanding the perception of another, you will be able to actively prioritize the good. Empathy isn’t just a good trait, it is a superpower!

As far as self-control goes, it is what separates us from animals. Let me tell you a secret: Human evolution is a fact. Get over it. That’s just the way God made us. But it is self-control that puts us over the fence to being human and worthy of the divine.

Next, choose friends who are better than you – I know I did. And then work really hard to keep them and be worthy of their friendship. Making friends is easy. Keeping them requires hard work.

Then pick a woman who is smarter and kinder than you to be your wife. It is easy to think that I married your mother for her looks, but the truth is that was just an added bonus. I married her because I knew three things when I met her. The first is that she would challenge me to be a better person. The second is that I wanted her to be the mother of my children. And the third is that I just loved her. Look for that in a partner, and the rest will fall into place.

SPEAKING OF your mother, Mommy and I have worked very hard to secure some small financial assets for you, but the real asset you have in life is your reputation. Do e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g you can to safeguard it. You can take risks with your money, but never take risks with your good name. To be known as a good kid with a good heart and later, a man of integrity, should be one of the most important goals in your life.

Give tzedakah. The word “tzedakah” does not mean charity, it means righteousness. Think of any tzedakah you give as an investment in the future of humanity. Money really does come and go; and if you pause to actually think about it, it’s ridiculous to spend money on luxury items while some people have nothing. I am not telling you that I myself always practice what I preach. God knows, I am a hypocrite in more ways than one. The amount we spent on this bar mitzvah is the obvious proof of that. But there is also nothing wrong in a man wanting his son to do better than he did in life. I beg of you to try!

My grandfather Jack, after whom you are named, ran the largest mattress and furniture store in all of Staten Island. But while the business is now gone, he made enough money to donate to practically every single Jewish institution on Staten Island, and his name still stands on the walls of some of them. Seeing his name there is the best inheritance I got from him. What encouraged Jack to give was not God or some heavenly reward. It was because at heart, he was a socialist who believed it was fair and right to share what he had. (He was also a capitalist who could afford to be a socialist; so there’s that...).

AND FINALLY, your mother has given you a Swiss passport, and I have given you an American one. Use them to travel far. God has created an amazing world filled with different sights, sounds, people and cultures. There is nothing wrong with exploring it, but then you come back home to Israel. It has been said that “Israel makes everything that is human, Jewish; and everything that is Jewish, human.” Having been born here, you will never ever realize how amazing it is that we have a Jewish state. 

I have lived here for close to thirty years, and I still can’t get over the fact that I am here. If Israel were a third world country, we could still point to it and see the fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and yet, the country we live in, that we have built here together, is simply amazing! I thought I made aliyah to give myself and my children a better JEWISH life. I didn’t realize that I would be giving us a better life – period. 

My decision to live here was the very best decision I have ever made. What we are doing here is transforming the Torah from mere religion to a complete way of life. No longer is the question “Is my chicken kosher?” the only one that matters. But are our economic policies kosher? We are taking the Torah from the four amot of the beit midrash and applying it to the entire world. It is one of the most exciting things in world history.

When you become an adult with the ability to choose, I hope you choose to make your life here. If you don’t, well, I guess it’s just more work for the rest of us! ■

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.