A Jewish boy celebrates his bar mitzvah, his Jewish “coming of age,” when he turns thirteen.

What is the biblical source for the age of bar mitzvah?

And it came to pass on the third day, when [the people of Shechem] were in pain [following their circumcision], that two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each man took his sword, and they came upon the city confidently, and killed every male.1

Simeon and Levi are called “men.” Our sages calculate2 that the two were thirteen at the time. Thus it’s clear that at thirteen years old, boys are already considered men.3

While the Torah’s use of the word “man” is necessary in order to inform us the age at which Jewish boys become responsible for mitzvot, the choice of placement is seemingly disturbing.

What are we to answer our children when they ask us about the very first bar mitzvah boys?

In what context do we learn of our children’s moral and religious maturation, accountability and responsibility? From an episode in which two thirteen-year-olds apparently behaved with none. What are we to answer our children when they ask us about the very first bar mitzvah boys?

We know the story; hopefully, we have struggled with it.

Two young men out for revenge.

The target is a Hivite prince named Shechem, and his people. Cunningly, Shechem is offered an alliance on behalf of Jacob’s family, hinged on the circumcision of all Shechemite males. The condition is accepted; the stage is now set for a massacre. Come the third day, the newly circumcised Hivites are at the peak of their pain, and Simeon and Levi renege on their word and spoil the good faith placed in them. The outcome is unrestrained carnage.

Are these the type of people we want our children to emulate? Are these the greatest examples our tradition has to offer our budding teens? Does their behavior in any way reflect the loving religion they belonged to, and the proper response it calls for?

The Crime of Silence

He who allows oppression, shares the crime.—Charles Darwin

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.—Dante Alighieri

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.—Albert Einstein

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.—Mark Twain

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.—Abraham Lincoln

I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.—Elie Wiesel

The evils of government are directly proportional to the tolerance of the people.—Frank Kent

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.—Edward R. Murrow

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.—Howard Zinn

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of the colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.—Robert F. Kennedy

In the Beginning . . .

Have you ever started reading a book from the middle?

Here’s the beginning of our story:

Now Dinah—the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob—went out to see the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he lay with her, and he violated her . . . Jacob’s sons arrived from the field when they heard; the men were distressed.4

Imagine a person coming home from work to find out that his sister was abducted and violated, her young life destroyed, forever scarred.

Words could not describe the grief, the anguish, the humiliation . . .

Worse, if at all possible, in Dinah’s instance she had been kidnapped in broad daylight! An entire population was complicit. Many Hivites had aided and abetted;5 the others stood by and watched. Some from street corners, others from behind drawn window shades; either way, they had all kept their silence.

Shechem was a man of nobility, the prince of an empire. News traveled fast, and before long, Dinah’s continued abduction and violation was the talk of that region and beyond.

Still no response, still no justice, still only thunderous silence.

The world looked on quietly.

Teen Models

The moral truths expressed by the notable personalities quoted above were first conceived and acted upon by Simeon and Levi.

We must dream of—not dread—raising children with moral courage and the preparedness to sacrifice

Simeon and Levi are the perfect paradigm, and Shechem the perfect setting, to teach us about religious and moral responsibility.

The word responsibility has been said to be made of two: response-ability. This description couldn’t better portray Jacob’s teenage boys, young men who exercised their ability to respond in full.

They saw a horrendous wrong being perpetrated, they were disturbed to the core of their souls, and they took action—despite the mortal risk involved.

Thus, it is apropos that that age of bar mitzvah be derived from Simeon and Levi’s selfless stand.

We must dream of—not dread—raising children with moral courage and the preparedness to sacrifice.6

Stepping Up to the Plate

Using some poetic license, I would like to present my version of the Shechem episode, along with the thoughts, feelings and conversations that were behind it.7

“Did you see hear the news?” Simeon’s voice trembled.

“What is it now?” Levi asked.

“They’re holding Dinah captive, and now Shechem, may he die a hundred deaths, wants to marry her. They say they won’t let her go until we’ve come to an ‘agreement.’”

Levi’s heart stopped. Numb from shock, he stood rooted to his spot. Only as the information began to register did he begin to shake with rage. He had never felt this angry before.

“The absolute nerve of that rotten lowlife! First he violates her, and then he wants her love!”

“We must act now!” said Simeon urgently.

Having somewhat regained his composure, Levi, usually the calmer of the two, said, “Look, let’s think about this for a second before we do anything rash. What about going to the authorities for help?”

Simeon stopped him short. “Shechem is the authority.”

“But there must be some sort of law in this land!”

“Shechem is the law.”8

Simeon stopped him short. “Shechem is the authority . . .”

“But what about the neighboring nations? Won’t they intervene on our behalf?” Levi pressed on. “How could they possibly let this go? There must be some type of international law.”

“Stop being so naive,” Simeon impatiently responded. “No one could care less about us, end of story. Besides . . .”

Simeon drifted off mid-sentence; Judah was bolting toward them. He was stammering uncontrollably. They shuddered at the sight. Judah was normally the most articulate of the brothers, always calm and collected: a real leader.

When he was calm enough to be coherent, he gave them the morbid update. “A rumor has been spread by the palace that Dinah is a common harlot who willingly serviced the prince.”9

Simeon’s face went ashen. “There’s no chance in the world we’ll get any help now. Worse, if that rumor gets around, and we do take action, we’ll be labeled the aggressors,10 and be accused of libeling Shechem in order to start a war. If that happens, the surrounding nations will surely join Shechem to fight us!”

Levi, forever optimistic, said, “What about Shechem’s government? There must be someone there who’s sympathetic to us, and if not, certainly there are those who would be willing to accept money in exchange for their help.”

Judah had thought of that already. “All political avenues—both direct and indirect—are sealed tight. In fact, many of the officials were themselves personally involved in the kidnapping, and those who were not have sworn to back Shechem to the death.11 I’m afraid we’re in this alone.

“Just so you know, we have strong reason to believe that Shechem kidnapped Dinah in the hope that we would fight back and get killed in action, so that he could add our family fortune to his personal treasury.”12

This was too much for Simeon. He jumped up and yelled, “Enough is enough! We’re left with no choice but to fight the Hivites. That’s the only way we’ll ever see Dinah alive again. Who even knows how they’re treating her as we speak . . .”

Judah, back to his coolheaded self, interjected with some logic. “Although it seems that war is our only option, it’s not really an alternative. We’ll be killed before we could count to ten . . . I’m going to talk to the others. There must be another way out of this.” With that, he hurried off.

When the two were again alone, Simeon grabbed hold of Levi’s shoulders, “Join me in combat. We can do it together. If not, I fight myself!”

Moved by Simeon’s sacrifice, he replied, “I would, but it’s suicidal and therefore pointless. Of what use are we to Dinah if dead?”

His eyes smoldering, Simeon exclaimed, “Enough with the calculations! I’d rather die trying to save Dinah than live knowing that I did nothing to help rescue her from those animals.

“I’d rather die trying to save Dinah than live knowing that I did nothing to help her . . .”

“Listen carefully. If you think this was a random act of terror, you are dead wrong. Shechem did what he did only because he knows we are Hebrews,13 and that we have a lot of enemies who want us dead. He thinks that Jewish blood is cheap. And judging by the “overwhelming” reaction he received, his sentiment is confirmed. No one is ready to stand by us in our time of need. If we don’t act now, there will be no end to the attacks on our people. If we don’t put an end to these crimes of hate—yes, of hate—then our future generations will continuously be hounded by those who realize that they can get away with spilling our blood . . .”

Levi understood that Simeon’s assessment was on target. “I’m in,” he passionately exclaimed. “Even if it means sacrificing my life. There comes a time when we must stop thinking about ourselves and do for others, whatever the price. Who knows what difference our act of standing up to evil will have on the entire world! Let’s work out a plan . . .”

What’s in It for Me?

Today’s youth are often defined as passive and indifferent. Passion and zeal are for fanatics, and words like universal awareness, responsibility and accountability often ring hollow. The peace symbol, if at all recognized by our children, belongs to a different era. Self-sacrifice has been replaced by self-worship. Even atheists are dwindling, outnumbered by those who simply don’t care.

Instead there’s the I-Pod, I-Tunes, I-Phone and MySpace.

Forgive me if I have understated my case.

The time has come to reclaim our youth.

Youth is the engine of the world. Responsibility and sacrifice is what fuels that engine

If we want our children to rejoice instead of mourn their heritage, we must ignite in them a spark. If we want their hearts to beat with faith in G‑d and a love for mankind, we must impart Simeon’s fire, and stoke it until we see it mirrored in the eyes of our children.

If we want our children to care and share, to look beyond themselves and into another, we must bring them up in the image of the first bar mitzvah boys.

Youth is the engine of the world. Responsibility and sacrifice is what fuels that engine.

Few are called upon to stand up to mighty empires; but regardless of one’s calling, ignoring it is just not an option.