Monday, May 22, 2006

Taking Responsibility for Oneself

The following letter from the dean of Pardes was included in the school's latest monthly newsletter, and I found it quite moving on several levels. Thought I'd share it with you . . .

Dear Friends,


I would like to share a “Pardes moment” with you. Last week at Pardes, we celebrated a “Pidyon ha-Ben.” This ceremony involves a Cohen, and an exchange of coins, by which a first-born son is redeemed on the 31st day of his life, assuming both his parents were not of Cohen or Levi descent, that there were no previous miscarriages, etc.

It’s actually pretty rare -- I’ve only been to a couple in my life. Some say that it is a redemption marking the fact that eldest sons need not serve in the Temple, which became the task of Cohanim and Levi’im (hence, they do not require this ceremony); others see it as reminding us that our eldest sons are not to be offered up as human sacrifices, as Canaanite idolators were wont to do; some say it hearkens back to the saving of the Jewish first-born sons during the last plague in Egypt.

But this “Pidyon ha-Ben” was not performed, as you might have thought, to redeem the first-born male child of an Israelite teacher at Pardes. As they were learning in Talmud class, Masechet Kiddushin 29a, which describes the obligations of a father to his son (and also vice-versa), one of the Pardes classes began discussing this mitzvah of “Pidyon ha-Ben.” A student realized that he fit the description, and when checking with his mother, learned that the ceremony had never been performed.

Last week, a good number of Pardes students attended a Pidyon ha-Ben ceremony for this student, for many the first time they attended a Pidyon ha-Ben ritual. Unusual as the ceremony is, it is even rarer to find it performed for a 27-year old! As in the case of ritual circumcision, the Halacha teaches us that if the parents do not fulfill the mitzvah on the child, it devolves to the child (when reaching adulthood) to assume responsibility for the performance of the mitzvah. (In fact, earlier this year, two other Pardes students realized that their parents had them circumcised in a hospital immediately after birth, and not as part of a ritual Jewish ceremony with a mohel, bracha (blessing), etc. They initiated a “hatafat dam brit” for themselves -- a quick, painless procedure performed by a mohel. The students showed up to learn minutes later, and didn’t look the worse for it!)

Faculty member Rabbi David Levin-Kruss explained to those present that there is an important lesson to learn from this Halacha – while our parents might not provide us with everything we would want them to, we cannot simply complain about it; we must take responsibility for ourselves at a certain point in life, and give ourselves those things we need which we never received from our parents.

Both he and I saw another parallel case in the room – the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, learning Torah. In the same Talmudic sugya (passage), it is stated that a father must provide a Torah education to his sons, something that today has thankfully been extended to daughters. Sitting (and standing) in the room at that moment were Pardes students, many of whom felt that the Jewish education they received as children was not complete. While there was much their parents did provide them, learning the classical texts of our tradition in the original was not one of those things.

And here they all were, nearing the end of an academic year of Torah learning at Pardes, not complaining about what they were not given; instead, they had taken the initiative (sometimes with the support of their parents, sometimes without) to stop their life and come to Jerusalem to study those texts, and their Jewish heritage, for a year.

At least for the faculty present, I know it was a moving moment, seeing the dozens of students in the room. They are all graduates of fine universities, and some are in the early stages of very successful careers; and yet many of them chose the hard road of “infantilizing” themselves, putting themselves in the position of semi-literates, in order to engage in serious study of Jewish texts. It is no wonder, I told them, that most Jews their age do not do this, as it is so hard.

Our students are truly a remarkable group of young men and women, and we have much to be thankful for.


David I. Bernstein, Ph.D.


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