Bar Mitzvah Dance And Parshat Ki Teitzei By Rabbi Z. Lent

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If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them — Deut 21:18

Bar mitzva celebrations rarely make the make the media, and when they do it is usually not for the best of reasons. One barmitzva video which has gone viral globally is that of a young man named Sam, whose barmitzva celebration is described as follows, “A group of professional dancers with feathers in their hair, dance and writhe across chairs burlesque-style to the wails of singer Christina Aguilera. Then, bar mitzvah boy Sam is lowered to the stage from the ceiling, encased in a shining white lampshade, after which he skilfully shows off his professional moves as he boogies with the dancers to the strains of Jennifer Lopez’s Dance Again. In the background, giant gold letters spell out S-A-M.”

Now, I must confess I have not seen the video, nor do I want to, but it helps illustrate something very difficult to understand in this week’s parsha … the section about the “ben sorer umoreh.”

The section about the ben sorer umoreh is so difficult to reconcile with a Torah lifestyle that our sages say it never actually happened, and never could happen. So what is it?

The ben sorer umoreh is translated as “the stubborn and rebellious son,” whose parents are instructed in the Torah to have him taken to court, judged and killed. What are the sins of a young teenager,that are so great that they warrant the death penalty? The answer is that this young man is corrupt, profligate and a glutton. He steals from his own parents, to sate his gluttonous desires for meat and wine, and refuses to listen to them when they attempt to discipline him. If they report him to the court, and he still refuses to shape up, he receives the death penalty.

This seems so draconian, and so unusual in terms of  Torah law, that the sages of the Talmud explain it never actually happened; “There never was, and never will be, a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ aben sorer umoreh.” It seems the Torah is teaching us something very crucial about life, education and parenting. At thirteen years old, we see our children as just that … children.  All kinds of bad and antisocial behaviour is excused by the fact that they are “teenagers”. The Torah tells us here very clearly that behaviour uncorrected at a young age will escalate rapidly unless fixed. The parents of a troublesome child or teen must take strong corrective action. If that fails they must seek professional advice, because, as we are told in the midrash on these verses, this type of behaviour if unchecked will only lead to a life of theft and violence.

The message to parents is unambiguous; our job is to monitor and manage the education and behaviour of our children, with no tolerance for crime, theft or antisocial behaviour. Ignore the signs at your own risk. From the earliest years of life we must show our children the path we want them to follow for the rest of their lives. Even at the tender age of thirteen, halachically he may be a man, but he is still someone’s child, learning to navigate the world appropriately. We need to ensure that the values we instil in our children and youth are Torah values, values of respect for the elderly and care for the infirm; values of honesty and integrity; values of modesty and moderation; values of faith in G-d, and love of His laws; values of morality and fidelity, of charity and empathy for creatures large and small.

For a barmitzva boy these values are key, alongside the laying of tefillin, the participation in the daily minyan and of course the all-important barmitzva speech, “Today I am a fountain pen!” Choreographed dancing with celebrities is fine for TV talent shows, but not for a barmitzva boy. Rather than descending in a large lampshade, a barmitzva boy should be immersed in the new mitzvot he is now obligated in, including putting on his new tefillin.

It is important to give credit where it is due, and so it is important to mention that barmitzva boy Sam, clearly not a ben sorer umoreh, has actually donated all his barmitzva gift money to charity, a huge total of $36,000.

In the parsha today we have many rules of kindness and charity, including how every farmer harvesting his fields must leave some over for the poor. In all our celebrations, whether harvesting the new crops or celebrating a Bar or Bat mitzva, we must always remember those less fortunate. If we do that, maybe our children will be able to withstand the hedonistic and mercenary culture of the world in which we live, and adhere as best as possible to the faith of our fathers, a faith in which burlesque dancers and barmitzva boys are not mentioned together in newspaper headlines.   Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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