Our son Mendy's bar mitzvah was two and a half months ago and we're still in the process of coming down from the high of celebrating that incredible evening with family and friends.
Part of Mendy's speech that night is relevant to this time of year on the Jewish calendar, as we mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B'av (Sunday, July 22). So instead of writing a column for this E-Torah, I decided to post the transcript of his speech below and let it speak for itself (and if you'd like, you can click here for a video of it).
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov
As part of my bar mitzvah preparation I studied an entire tractate of Talmud with my father, Tractate Makos. It took us a while, more than year, because we had to fit it in with my regular school schedule, and everything else going in life. But we persevered and we did it. I’m really proud of us...
It is customary when you finish studying a tractate of talmud to have a siyum, a celebratory meal, and to share some anecdotes from the tractate and to try to make it relevant to today. So in addition to this being my bar mitzvah celebration, it’s also a siyum. So, I will share with you an interesting story from the end of Tracate Makos.
It took place right at the beginning of the common era, about 2000 years ago. A group of sages, Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva, were travelling around Israel following the destruction of the second Temple. Twice, they witnessed things that seemed to be bad news for the Jewish people, and both times, while the other rabbis cried and mourned, Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Each time, when his colleagues asked him why he was laughing, he had an answer for them.
The first time, they heard the sound of celebrating and rejoicing coming from the Romans, who had destroyed the Temple. They were celebrating their victory and the demise of the Jewish nation. When the rabbis started crying, Rabbi Akiva did not. In fact, he was happy. He laughed. He explained that seeing these evil people having everything going so well for them in this world, is just an indication how good things will be for the Jews in the world to come. They are celebrating now, but when Moshiach comes we will not only have our joy, we will actually take over their party as well.
The second incident was when they saw the actual destruction on Temple Mount. They saw a fox running around the ruins of what used to be the Kodesh Hakadashim, the Holy of Holies, the holiest spot of the Temple, where only the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, was allowed to enter, and only on Yom Kippur. Again, the rabbis were crying at this devastation, and Rabbi Akiva laughed.
This time he explained to them that he is laughing because he now certain that everything will be good. How? because there are two prophecies, one that predicts the destruction--including having foxes roam Temple Mount--and another that predicts the eventual return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. These two prophecies were linked to one another, and they are dependent on each other. Until I saw the first part being fulfilled, I wasn’t sure that the second part will happen. But now that we see that the Temple has been defiled to the extent that there are foxes running around, we can be sure that the second part will happen very soon too.
Rabbi Akiva’s friends then turned to him and said, “Akiva, you have comforted us.” They were finally able to see things from his perspective.
Rabbi Akiva was a person who worked really hard to study Torah. Until he was 40 years old he didn’t know a thing, not even a single letter of the Alef Beis. But at the insistence of this wife, he began studying, and within a few years he became one of the greatest jewish sages ever. he had thousands of students, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose yahrtzeit is today, Lag B’omer.
What was different about Rabbi Akiva, the way he stood out among his colleagues and the other rabbis, is that he wasn’t always so great. He worked hard and he earned it. The other rabbis took what they had for granted, so all they were able to see is what was on the surface. They only saw the destruction, the sadness, but he saw how the destruction is actually a stepping stone to a much better time. Just like in his own life, his efforts came as a result of his lacking knowledge, and it is what drove him to work harder and reach greater heights.
And Rabbi Akiva’s optimism was contagious. He accomplished that his friends eventually realized that as well. Even someone that has everything good going for them, like the other rabbis who were Torah scholars from a very young age, everyone needs to realize that it is possible to do even better.
And that is the lesson that I take for myself at my bar mitzvah. I know that becoming a bar mitzvahmeans that I am now a responsible Jewish adult. It means that I can no longer rely on my parents to do things for me, that I have to step up and be a man.
I know that it might not always be easy. Whether it’s waking up early every morning to daven, memorizing the maamer I just recited in Yiddish, or sitting in the car for a few hours a day just to get to and from school. It is difficult, but this story of Rabbi Akiva teaches me that the reward for meeting a challenge is so much greater than if everything was easy.
I also know that this is just the beginning. A bar mitzvah is not the end of my Jewish education, it is the beginning of my life as a Torah observant jew. On the surface it may seem that I am done and can now breathe (it’s true by the way, I am pretty relieved that this day is finally here…) but it also means that there is so much more good to come.
I look forward to being able to learn and grow even more in my Torah studies, in being a proud representative, a shliach, of the Rebbe in our community. I hope to one day serve my own community as a shliach, bringing about the fulfillment of the final prophecy, the coming of Moshiach and rebuilding of the Temple, may very soon!
(Mendy Zalmanov bar mitzvah speech; May 2, 2018)