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A Message to my Son

Mountaineer reaches the top of a snowy mountain in a sunny winter day. Western Alps, Biella, Italy.

My oldest son enters the Israeli army this week, motivated by nothing other than a sense of commitment to the security of his people.

It seems fitting to revisit these thoughts, written on the occasion of his bar mitzvah ten years ago.

It’s not difficult to sympathize with the skeptics who questioned the ability of Avrohom Mordechai Altar, then still a teenager, to succeed his father as leader of the Gerrer Chassidim, possibly the most influential Torah community in Poland at the end of the 19th century. But the young scholar, who would grow up to become a great rabbi and author of the Imrei Emes, answered his critics with the following parable.

A small town in an isolated land rested at the foot of a great mountain, a peak so high and steep that all reasonable people considered it unconquerable. From time to time, however, some impetuous youth would set out to climb the mountain. Some of these returned admitting defeat. The rest were never heard from again.

Despite the warnings and prophesies of doom, a certain young man decided to challenge the mountain. Many times he nearly turned back, and many times he nearly met his end, but through sheer persistence he finally reached the mountain top. But he was utterly unprepared for what he found there.

A thriving city of people lived upon a great plateau at the mountain¹s summit. There were houses and farms — an entire community living where everyone believed that no one had ever set foot.

The inhabitants of the mountain top laughed at him when he expressed his astonishment. “Do you think you¹re the first one to climb the mountain?” they chided. “We also reached the top and, having done so, chose to build this town and make our lives here.”

Not yet recovered from his dismay, the young man noticed a small boy, only six or seven years old. This was more than he could believe. “Did you climb all the way up here, too?!” the young man exclaimed.

“No,” replied the boy. “I was born here.”

The youthful rabbi explained to his followers that indeed he was young. But he had been born into a dynasty of great Torah leaders, raised by and taught by the greatest sages of his generation who had in turn been taught and raised by the greatest sages of their generation. True, he was young; but he had been born on a mountain, and from his place atop the shoulders of the spiritual giants who preceded him he would build upon their greatness. In this way would he succeed as a leader of his people.

And so he did.

NHUV7363816Every year, on the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan, Jews around the world celebrate the revelation at Sinai, over 3300 years ago, when the Almighty gave us the Torah. It was the Torah that provided the moral and legal foundation that has enabled the Jewish people to build a nation devoted to spiritual ideals, a nation that endured for nearly 1,500 years in its land and nearly 2,000 years scattered across the globe. It was the Torah that introduced the concepts of peace, of charity, of justice, and of collective responsibility to a world that knew no value other than “might makes right.” It was the Torah that formed the basis of Christianity and Islam, spreading monotheism throughout the world and fashioning the attitudes of modern progressivism.

It all began on that mountain called Sinai, and from that point on the Jewish people have labored to climb the mountain of morality and virtue, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, sometimes wondering whether our efforts are worthwhile, but always persevering in our mission to attain the summit of spiritual and moral perfection.

Had our mission demanded completion within a single generation, we would never have held out hope of success. But every generation climbs a little higher, building on the accomplishments of their parents and grandparents, fighting for every handhold, struggling for every foothold, occasionally slipping back but never surrendering.

The mission that defines us as a people began 33 centuries ago; it continues today as we recommit ourselves to the study and observance of Torah, and celebrate it on the holiday of Shavuos.

And it was two weeks after Shavuos that I celebrated what happens only once in a lifetime — the bar mitzvah of my eldest son. In his first 13 years of life I did my utmost to teach him that he was born on the mountain, that he has the accomplishments of generations beneath his feet to support him, and that future generations will depend upon him for their support just as he depends on those who went before.

And so it is with every Jewish child. Each has his own contribution to make in the eternal mission of our eternal people. It is the Torah that defines us, the Torah that guides us, the Torah that sustains us, and the Torah that will ultimately bring us to the fulfillment of the spiritual goals for which the Almighty created us.

Climb, my son. Climb and keep climbing toward the top of the mountain.

Originally published by Aish.com.

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