"Today, I am a mensch"


(cross-posted from Lion and the Bull)


We celebrated my son's Bar Mitzvah yesterday with 65 friends in Steamboat Springs.  In case you ever have the urge to invite 25 13-year-olds and those parents brave enough to make the trip to join you on a 3-hour trek into the mountains, here are a few things I learned.  Maybe they can help you:
  1. Even in a 10,00 square foot house, you can still hear (and smell) 13-year-old boys, no matter where they are.
  2. 13 is the age where a party with both boys and girls takes on a whole new tone.  Where before the boys ran around and thew things at each other while the girls sat and played a quiet game, now the boys find it imperative that every competition take place where the girls can see them, and each girl travels at the center of a cluster of boisterous males.  And when this happens near a hot tub, I feel a powerful need to "look at the stars" from a chair nearby, no matter how many times they ask whether I'd be more comfortable elsewhere.
  3. While teenage boys have enough energy to make even a river seem small when you're floating down it on inner tubes, even they have to sleep sometime.
But the most important thing I learned on this trip came from my father-in-law when he spoke to my son during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.  I can't remember the exact words, because I think I was starting to suffer from heat stroke by then (wearing a dark suit on a sunny deck may not have been the best choice), but it went something like this:
Today we celebrate you becoming a man, and taking on all the responsibilities that come with that under the Torah.  But there's another word that applies here as well.  It's a Yiddish word: "mensch."  Like most Yiddish words, it's hard to translate directly into English.  You could translate it to "man," but it's more than that.  A mensch is a good man.  Being a mensch means taking care of others.  It means having a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye when you greet them.  It means doing what's right, even when it isn't easy. Being a mensch means being honest and open to new ideas.  It means being generous and encouraging to others.  
You are all these things, Ben.  You are a mensch.
As you might imagine, this speech brought tears to my eyes, because I agree.  My boy is a mensch, and I'm very proud to look at him and see these qualities.  Of course, as his parent, I also get to see his less menschy attributes: the crabbiness, the stubbornness, the sheer physical inability to pick up a single dirty sock and put it in the laundry chute.  But when I watched him this weekend, speaking graciously to relatives and family friends whom he clearly didn't recognize, accepting congratulatory kisses from aunts and headfirst running hugs from young cousins, keeping his friends from trashing the house where we were staying even while leading them in fun activities, I caught a glimpse of the man he will become, and I was filled with a sense of pride.

This is a father's greatest burden and his greatest accomplishment: to show his son what a man should be.  We show it first with our actions and then with our words, and we do it best when we make the boy a part of the lesson.  When I bring my wife flowers for no good reason or greet her with a kiss when I get home from work, I show him how a husband should treat his wife.  When I let him pick out the flowers, and make that part of our shopping trips together, I let him feel what it's like to be the man treating his wife with love and respect.  When I tell him that he has to do his homework and his chores before he can play video games, I'm teaching him that a man takes care of his responsibilities before he pleases himself.  When I sit down with him and help with that homework, or do the dishes even when I want nothing more than to lie down on the couch after a long day at work, I'm living it out before him.  When I am angry but I hold back my urge to lash out, when I help those who are weaker than me, I show my son how to use his strength to protect and nourish rather than to dominate.

One of the most critical lessons that we have tried to teach our children is how to be generous with the resources with which God has blessed us.  When we buy Christmas presents or school supplies for underprivileged kids or give a waitress an outlandishly large tip, or even do big things like "Take Back the Movies" or hosting all of our friends and family in Steamboat Springs to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah, we're showing our kids that money doesn't exist to make us happy.  It's a tool that we are given for blessing others.  Yes, we take care of our own needs and make sure that we have a house and food and clothing, but after that, we look for opportunities to use this tool to bring joy to both the people we know and to strangers who come across our path.  We do this because, as one person said to me this weekend, "We are blessed so that we can bless."

Or, as God said to Abraham (an appropriate quote for a Bar Mitzvah weekend):
“Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”
This, to me, is truly what it means to be a mensch: to be a blessing to those around you.  When a man looks back on his life, whether he's 13, 33, or 93, he should say, "The world is a better place because I passed through it.  When God placed people in my path, I used my hands, my skills, and my resources to give them a glimpse of the outrageously generous God who loves them.  When he placed people within my care or under my authority, I took care of them the way he would have.  Whether it benefitted me or not, whether they knew it or not, I made people's lives better where it was in my power to do so.  I gave people a glimpse of Heaven on earth, even if only for a moment."

This is why, even as we opened gift cards and counted checks, we talked about where my son would give 10% of the money he received to bless other people.  And this is why I was so proud when he happily accepted the opportunity to share out of his own bounty rather than trying to hoard it all for himself.

This weekend was a big step, but in practical terms, my boy isn't a man quite yet.  I have a few more years to show him what that means, to correct him when he strays, and to give him the foundation that he needs to make his own decisions once he's on his own.  This is my job.  This is my greatest work.  For he will learn what I live out before him, even more than what I try to teach him.  In my best moments and in my worst, I will show him what it is to be a good man, and he will follow in the path I set before him.

To teach my boy to be a man, I must be a mensch.  And oy, what a journey this will be.
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