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Editor’s note: The following commentary is adapted from an address by Rabbi Shmuley to his son Mendy in synagogue on Saturday, May 6, 2006.
Mendy, today is your Bar Mitzvah. As your father, I want to help inspire you on this momentous occasion with words that I hope will stay with you forever.
In your Torah portion, you read God’s seminal command, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
To be holy is to be set apart. The Sabbath is holy because its restfulness distinguishes it from the work days of the week. The Temple in Jerusalem is holy because its consecrated space is set aside for lofty spiritual pursuits.
If one is to be holy, Mendy, then one must be different.
When all the world was worshipping idols, carved from stone and sculpted from rock, Abraham affirmed the invisible Creator who hid behind the starry night. When all of Egypt enslaved an innocent people, Moses distanced himself from his royal upbringing by striking an Egyptian taskmaster who mercilessly beat a helpless slave.
In so doing, both these men exuded a preparedness to be hated for their righteousness. Abraham would henceforth be called, Avraham Haivri, the man who dared to stand apart. Moses would be forced to flee his native country, only to return and bring the mighty Egyptians to their knees.
What does it mean to be a Jew, Mendy? It is the courage to be different. Benjamin Disraeli, the celebrated British prime minister, expressed that difference in response to an anti-Semitic parliamentarian’s derogatory reference to him as a Jew: “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
You now become a man Mendy, and you have a choice as to what kind of man you will be. Small men want to be loved. But big men are prepared to be hated. Small men tailor their actions to suit the multitude. But big men will do the right thing no matter how much it inflames the masses.
Abraham Lincoln was detested by both South and North as he fought for the highly unpopular cause of emancipation. Winston Churchill was loathed in Britain for speaking out against Chamberlain’s fictitious peace with Hitler. And Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet as he pointed out the injustices practiced against black Americans. No great man or woman has ever lived who was not prepared to be hated.
Do not the make the mistake on your Bar Mitzvah, Mendy, as you bask in the adoration of family and community, that popularity is virtuous. On the contrary, as you steel yourself to become a man, prepare yourself to practice justice whatever the consequences.
While the rest of the world will strive to be loved, you strive to be holy. Do what’s right even it costs you friendship. Do what’s virtuous even if it leaves you lonely. Seek to impress not your fellow man, but none but God alone.
How many Jewish students did I meet in my 11 years at Oxford who were afraid to be different, terrified to stand apart. They would arrive at the university with their yarmulkes and quickly take them off. They weren’t just abandoning God, they were betraying themselves, displaying weakness and a desire to be part of the pack.
Remember, Mendy, when we traveled in an RV to Badlands National Park, in South Dakota? There was a terrible storm, and we saw hundreds of cows that herded together, out of fear, under the thundering skies. And that’s what most people do, Mendy, as they confront that one great fear in life, that they won’t be loved. The herd instinct is a reaction to the fear of being different, of being rejected, of being an outcast. The desire to be loved is so strong that most people are prepared to erase their individuality, obliterate their uniqueness, just in order to be accepted. Abraham Lincoln once remarked that the tragedy of being human is that while all of us are born God’s original, most of us die man’s imitation and copy.
There are kids prepared to start taking drugs just to win friends. There are teenage girls who are prepared to have sex with boys in the false belief that by delivering their bodies the boy will offer up his heart.
You be different, Mendy. Never look to be loved. Look to be holy. Don’t look to be popular. Look to be righteous. Endeavor not to fit in, but to remain you.
The prophet Micah said it best: “What does God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” Walk with God, Mendy, even when it forces you to walk without human company. Walk with God even when if feels, as did in Auschwitz, that God Himself has ceased to walk with you.
In my life, I have often made the mistake of thinking that being loved was more important than being holy. I always wanted to do virtuous things with my life, but I wanted to be known for those good things. And in my quest for recognition, I made big mistakes, like believing that Hollywood celebrities would be a proper way to promote Godly values. My need to be loved was too great, the desire for external affirmation too overpowering. I was flattered that famous people admired me.
Now I know that my error was simply to want to be loved rather to be righteous. Had I wanted to be holy, I would never have lent credibility to a rock star who made himself into an idol. Had I wanted to be holy, I would still have written controversial books like “Kosher Sex,” to save marriages. But I would have paid greater homage to my detractors, in the knowledge that one learns far more from one’s critics than one’s fans.
Devote your life, Mendy, to being a Kiddush Hashem, to making God shine. Act compassionately, and you will make God glitter. Greet people with dignity, and you will make God sparkle. Give a homeless man a dollar, and you will make God shimmer. Control your temper, and you will make God glisten.
You have made me proud to be your father. But from today, you become a man. Be a big man, Mendy. Live for the big things that electrify the heavens and causes the earth to quake.