Lazer Sholokov was twelve and a half when he attended the Chabad camp at Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. The camp director, Rabbi Shimon Bergman, had already noticed his innate sensitivity to Judaism during his previous participation in Chabad programs. So Rabbi Bergman decided to broach the subject of his upcoming bar mitzvah, offering to prepare him for the event.

“Lazer was a willing student,” recalls Rabbi Bergman. “Still, I wanted him to know how fully I appreciated his dedication in committing himself to learn how to read from the Torah and deliver a chassidic discourse by heart. After all, this is not what twelve-year-old Russian boys of limited Jewish affiliation usually choose to do. I told him that gifts were also part of the celebration and promised him a gift of his choice for his diligence and performance.

“Lazer did us all proud, and fulfilled his role beautifully. His bar mitzvah was a moving experience for all those who attended.”

A few days afterward, Lazer paid the rabbi a visit. Rabbi Bergman was expecting him.

“Lazer,” he exclaimed warmly, “you did wonderfully! You certainly earned the gift I promised. Just tell me what you want.” Rabbi Bergman was sure Lazer would ask for some computer game or electronic gadget. He was totally unprepared for what followed.

“Rabbi,” Lazer began with a slight quiver in his voice, “you have been very kind and generous to me. Since you promised me a gift, I hope I will not be asking too much. I have a sixteen-year-old brother who became interested in putting on tefillin when I began to. We both have to leave the house early in the morning to get to school, and often there isn’t enough time for both of us to put on tefillin. So for my gift, I would like to ask for a pair of tefillin for my brother.”

Parshas Vayishlach

Our Sages relate that the concept of a Bar-Mitzvah features in this Torah reading. Shechem, the leader of a Canaanite village of that name, kidnapped Jacob’s daughter Dinah and defiled her. In retribution, two of her brothers, Shimon and Levi, slew all the males of that village. Now Shimon and Levi were 13 years old at the time. The Torah refers to the brothers as “men,” indicating that they had come of age. From this, our Sages derive the concept that at 13, a youth becomes Bar-Mitzvah.

The question immediately arises: Couldn’t the Torah have found a nicer story to teach us the age when a youth enters manhood?

To resolve this question, we have to understand the nature of the concept of Bar-Mitzvah. Why is a child considered to have entered manhood at 13?

Our Rabbis explain that although a youth may have gain much knowledge before his thirteenth birthday, it is not until that age that he is able to appreciate the seriousness of his actions. It is only then that he gains the maturity to understand how important it is to fulfill a mitzvah. (To cite a parallel in worldly matters, a youth may be able to perform mathematical equations with money, but may not have the maturity to conduct himself in financial dealings.)

By associating coming of age with the story of Shimon and Levi, the Torah is emphasizing that our connection with the Torah and its mitzvos cannot be one that begins and ends with the mind. Shimon and Levi put their very lives at risk. There was reason to say that they should have remained passive and let the matter go by. Nevertheless, their inner sensitivity to moral values would not let them remain still. Seeing an outrage, they realized they had to do something no matter what the danger.

Why is a person prepared to risk his life for his values and principles? Because that is who he really is. His true “I” is not his individual self with his wants and desires, but his soul which is an actual part of G‑d. Since “Israel, G‑d, and the Torah are all one,” when a Jew sees the Torah’s values being flaunted, he should be touched to the core of his soul.

And it should not be an issue that merely causes him pain. He should be prepared to do something about it, even if it involves self-sacrifice. This is a fundamental lesson that every Bar Mitzvah boy must learn.

Looking to the Horizon

The Torah reading begins with the meeting between Esau (interpreted by our Rabbis as the progenitor of Rome) and Jacob (the ancestor of the Jewish people) and the Haftorah develops that theme, focusing on the ultimate confrontation between these nations when: “Saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Edom and the sovereignty will be G‑d’s.”

In truth, the conflict between the two is cosmic in nature. Esau is identified with the body; its drives and its cravings. He is a hunter and a man of violence. Jacob is identified with the soul. He is “a simple man, dwelling in tents,” “the tents of study,” devoting his life to the study of the Torah and straightforward, honest business dealings.

One might think: Well, that’s perfect! There is no need for conflict. Let Esau have the material realm and Jacob take the spiritual.

But from the very beginning of their conception, this compromise was not accepted by either. In her womb, the Matriarch Rebecca felt an awesome battle between the two. They were, in the words of our Sages, “fighting over the inheritance of two worlds.” For Jacob understands that the purpose of creation is not for spirituality and physicality to remain skew lines, but for the physical to become subsumed to the spiritual. And Esau knows about the spiritual and desires to corrupt it.

And so there is a conflict between the two. This conflict is reflected on an individual level, as the Esau and Jacob within each of us seek dominion. And it is reflected on a national level in the struggles of our people within the sphere of nations.

As stated above, the ultimate resolution of this struggle will be in the era of Mashiach. That, however, is dependent on the service of each individual. As each one of us defeats his individual Esau, achieving a personal experience of redemption, the path is paved for an experience of redemption in the world at large.