Life lessons from a father to his son

I was absolutely moved and inspired by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche’s letter to his son on the eve of Bar Mitzva (traditional Jewish celebration of a boy turning 13 years old). His words empowered me, deeply communicated and resonated with my outlook and philosophy of life. Rabbi Allouche is not only my husband’s mentor and if I may say “favourite” Rabbi, but also a Rabbi listed in the Jewish Daily Forward as one of America’s 36 Most Inspiring Rabbis, who are “shaping 21st Century Judaism.”

I asked permission to share this with you, my dear friends.  I hope it inspires you the way it did me.

A letter to my Bar-Mitzvah son

Image 2016-04-17 at 9.33 AMEsther and I look forward to celebrating our son, Yisrael’s Bar Mitzvah. I’ve long been aware that as a Rabbi, even personal affairs are communal, for the good or not (this one is for the good- and please God, it should always be that way!) So I wanted to share with you parts of a letter I sent my son yesterday in the midst of our preparations for his big day. May we only share happy occasions together. Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Allouche

Dearest Yisrael,

A few days ago, as I observed you practicing for the zillionth time your Torah reading, prayers and speech, my mind floated to an impossible place:

Did Mommy and I do a “good-enough” job to lead you to this day and to equip you with all the tools that your adult life will now require? The answer, only God knows. Still, my dear son, below is another daring attempt to empower you with some ideas as you embark on this journey called life, in which you will undoubtedly continue to grow, shine and succeed, from strength to strength, to become a man of God and His people, and an agent of wisdom and goodness to each and all:

1. Look Backward

“If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future,” Winston Churchill once wrote. He was right: Like trees, a part of who we are at present, is our past. And any attempt to disconnect ourselves from this past, can endanger not just our present, but also our future.

Think of a chain necklace in which you are an important link. Without you, the necklace ceases to exist. And without your necklace’s past links – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors (among them was an Algerian chief Rabbi and author of holy books, an acclaimed aeronautical engineer, and a nobel prize winner) all the way to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – your necklace ceases to exist too.

So connect to them with love, learn from them with passion, and follow their holy ways with vigor, and your future will undoubtedly spring forth, and make our nation and family’s necklace stronger and brighter than ever.

2. …But Go Forward

Yes, you must look backward, at your past. But don’t stay there. Never cease to go forward each and every day, to make an impact in the present, fulfill your God-given purpose, and pave the “Yisrael roads” in our world, that only you can pave.

Your great-grandfather used to repeat a one-liner which has now been engraved in the consciousness of our family: “We must achieve today, much more than we did yesterday, and much less than we will do tomorrow.” I have no doubt that you too, Yisrael will follow his calling. At times, you will certainly be tested. Life is filled with challenges. But it is the people who work relentlessly hard to go forward, that eventually succeed, beyond measure.

Did you know that a total of twelve publishers (!) rejected the Harry Potter Series? But the author, J. K. Rowling, never despaired and continued to work hard until she became a household name. Other examples include, Steve Jobs who dropped out of college, was fired from Apple, the company he co-founded, and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he was determined to work hard, and he became one of the greatest entrepreneurs our generation has known. Albert Einstein was labeled by his teachers “slow” and “mentally handicapped,” but with very hard work, he became the most celebrated scientist in history. The examples are endless.

I know that with hard work and determination, you too, Yisrael, will join that exclusive list, and become a shining light in our world, to eternity.

3….and Focus Heavenward

One of my favorite Chassidic sayings, comes from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He would often ask his disciples: “Did you look heavenward today?”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? And it is a question that we can benefit from today – in our generation that increasingly looks downward, toward our phones and other gadgets – more than ever before.

So, Yisrael, did you look heavenward today? No, not just toward our all-embracing God, although that too is important. But also toward your dreams yet to be fulfilled, and our aspirations yet to be realized.

In our Torah, all of our heroes looked heavenward and dreamed big: Avraham dreamed of changing the world with monotheism. Yosef dreamed of becoming a royal king. Moshe dreamed of leading our nation into the promised land. They each faced the harshest of challenges, but they never stopped asking themselves, “Did we look heavenward today?” That is what made them the greatest of the greats. And that is what will make you the greatest of the greats too.

4. You Can Be Your Greatest Friend or You Can Be Your Greatest Enemy

When I was your age, our dear Rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, or “Rav Adin” as we like to call him, once called me aside and asked me: “Do you know what my greatest obstacle is?” Before I was able to utter a word, he replied: “It is me, Adin,” he said. “And the same goes for you. The greatest obstacle to you, Pini, is Pini. Once you will learn to master yourself, you will not have any problems in mastering the entire world.”

It was the best advice I had ever received. And it makes sense: within each of us, as you know, we have a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, a good inclination and a bad inclination. Or in the words of the Tanya, each of us possesses a Godly soul and an animal soul. It’s simple: the Godly soul wants us to follow Hashem and His Torah. The animal soul wants the opposite.

Both the Godly soul and the animal soul talk to us throughout the day. That’s how God made us. But almost always, you will know and feel deep within you, which voice you ought to listen to. Here’s a tip: The G-dly soul will almost always lead you toward Mitzvot and good actions. Conversely, the animal soul doesn’t want you to engage in doing good. If you’re unsure which voice you should listen to, you can always ask me, Mommy or a teacher of yours that you trust.

Rav Adin is right: if you can follow your Godly soul and control the animal one, you will see that you too will be able to master the world.

5. Don’t Pursue Happiness. Just Live it.

Viktor Frankl, one of my favorite authors, once wrote: “Don’t aim at happiness…You have to just let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run-in the long-run, I say!-happiness will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”

Indeed, happiness happens, not when you pursue it, but when you fulfill your unique purpose in life. If you live every moment fully, and seize every opportunity that is presented to you, then you will be happy.

Here’s a little secret: As a Rabbi, my main goal in life is to make people happy by supporting and encouraging people to stay true to themselves, to their Jewish identity, to their Divine souls. Sadly, too often, I see people become that which they are not. And it pains me. Some become doctors when they really wanted to be lawyers. Some become racing business-men when they really wanted to be settled family-men. And some turn into a pathetic version of their neighbor instead of a version of their true selves. So they become sad.

Yisrael, Mommy and I know that you are truly special and unique. God created only one Yisrael in the entire world. And He wants you to be you. Yes, your entire you, with all of your unique and special talents and skills. And we know that you were blessed with so many of them; from the brilliance of your intellect, to the vastness of your compassionate heart, to your willingness to run to do a Mitzvah, no matter its degree of difficulty. And if you remain true to who you are, I know that your life will be filled with blessings, and I know that happiness will then come to you, and never leave you.

6. Ok, One Final Idea

Ok, here’s one final idea. Perhaps, this idea is the most important of all: Know that Abba and Mommy are always here for you, with endless and unconditional love. And if you ever need an ear to listen to you, a heart to feel you, a soul to shine upon you, Abba and Mommy are always, always available for you.


Used with permission – Retrieved from CBT’s weekly newsletter, Friday, Nissan 7, 5776, April 15, 2016.

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