A letter to my grandson for his bar mitzvah: An Iggeres for the new generation

A bar mitzvah letter from grandfather to grandson on humility, leadership, and striving to be the best we can be.

Martin Oliner ,

Martin Oliner
Martin Oliner
Yoni Kempinski

Dear Shimon Yedidya,

It has been more than 750 years since the Ramban wrote a letter in Akko in Eretz Yisrael and sent it to his son in Catalonia, Spain.

The letter has withstood the test of time, and it is still read around the world on a weekly basis, as the Ramban requested of his son. I make a point of reading it every week to inspire me to be humble and to appreciate that everything in life comes from Hashem.

There are those who would say that humility is no longer a respected attribute in a generation when people constantly glorify themselves on social media. But I beg to differ.

In a global world, in which people are more connected than ever, we must strive to be more modest than ever. When much of the world has been turned upside down, it is our duty as Jews to fix the world and make it better.

You live in a world that is broken in ways the Ramban could not have imagined. But you must see this as an opportunity, because it means that there is more that you can do to perfect not only your surroundings but the entire planet.

Unlike the Ramban's son, who could only live in one place at a time, your ability to reach out around the world is infinite. Your influence is not limited by space, though it is limited by time, which as you get older you will realize is truly the world's scarcest natural resource.

The sanctity of time is one of the themes of Parshas Behar-Bechukosai that you will be layning at your bar mitzvah. It describes how even land needs both a time for work and a time for rest, just like we do.

The parsha speaks of blessings and of curses. Having lived through a pandemic, you understand what it is like to live in both at much too early an age. You have seen how effective leadership is essential in times of crisis but that there are times when mankind is helpless and can only rely on the blessings of God.

"In all your actions, words and thoughts, always regard yourself as standing before Hashem, with His Shechinah above you, for His glory fills the whole world," the Ramban wrote his son.

When he wrote that, it was probably hard to comprehend how to constantly feel God's presence. Nowadays, when cell phone cameras are so ubiquitous, everyone knows they are constantly being watched.

That means we must always be on our best behavior. We must strive to be role models, not just to our younger siblings but to other Jews of all ages and to the gentiles around the world who are anything but indifferent about the future of the Jewish people.

"Examine your actions every morning and evening," the Ramban recommended.

There is no better time to start doing that than your bar mitzvah. Until that day, all your sins go to your parents, but from then on, they are yours alone.

We must constantly consider how to become better people, learning from our mistakes and our faulty judgment along the way.

It is the ability to capitalize on trial and error that has made the Jewish State of Israel so effective and successful. It happens in the IDF, in hi-tech and lessons are even eventually learned in politics.

You are fortunate to live in an era when travelling between Israel and the Diaspora has never been easier. The difficulties in air travel during COVID-19 were a reminder of how much we should appreciate how easy it is to get around when there is no pandemic.

Israel showed the world its blessings during the COVID crisis. The little Jewish state vaccinated its people faster than any country around the world, in part because its health system was the most organized. The curses of the coronavirus did not spare Israel, of course, but it did unite its people.

Israel remains a beacon of freedom and democracy and a safe harbor for all Jews, which the Holocaust taught us is a necessity and not a privilege.

The land and State of Israel are gifts that were a reality when you were born, but you cannot take them for granted. Many children only several years older than you lost their lives fighting to ensure that you could come to Israel and live a life of blessings in your biblical homeland.

Israel remains a work in progress, and you have the tremendous opportunity to take part in perfecting it. We religious Zionists see this as an opportunity to partner with Hashem in a mitzvah that generations of Jews could only pray for. It was the Ramban who first taught the world about the importance of living in Israel as a mitzvah.

Perhaps the hardest requests the Ramban made of his son were to study Torah well and to focus when he prays. These tasks have become more challenging in a world full of distractions.

But they are the duty of a Jew, who must constantly be learning and who has the honor of communicating with God three times a day. Spend your spare time reading and not being disturbed.

The more we learn, the more we realize we still do not know and how far we still have to go in our education. Never pretend you know all the answers.

"I don't know" is often the wisest response and of course, the most honest.

It is also the most humble answer, and people will appreciate that.

There are way too many know-it-alls nowadays. The world suffers from a shortage of the humble.

Perhaps reading this once a week can help start changing that. But the world is full of people who can give better advice than I can.

Your name, Shimon Yedidya, means that you are both a listener and a friend of God. Those are two wonderful things to be. Continue to live up to your name.

As the Ramban concluded to his son, I leave you with hope that you will "succeed and merit the World to Come which lies hidden away for the righteous."

Love,

Zayde

The writer is co-president of the Religious Zionists of America, chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity, and a committee member of the Jewish Agency. He was appointed by former US President Donald Trump as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. The views expressed are his own. Martinoliner@gmail.com.



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