You should see the way his eyes sparkle when he lovingly holds his brand new kippa in his small hands. You should see the smile, wide as the heavens above, that spreads across his face when he kisses his choo-choo-train emblazoned tzitzis that proudly declare in green lettering, “Ani Ben Shalosh!”
It’s finally coming, his upsherin, coming this Sunday. And our Shmuel couldn’t possibly be more excited.
Retreating away from the hubbub of preparation for this simcha, a walk to maariv in the crisp darkness of a November evening, I reflect upon my feelings leading up to this momentous occasion in the life of our son, in the life of our journey as parents.
First and foremost, I am feeling excited for Shmuel, thrilled that he is so eager to enter into the realm of Torah and mitzvos. I am full of gratitude to Hashem for the last three years of delight and for bringing us all to this moment in good health. But then I reach deeper than this, peeling away the layers to reveal a simpler truth tucked away in the shadows of my heart. And I realize that, if I am being honest, I am a bit ambivalent over Shmuel’s upcoming upsherin.
My readers know that I consider Shmuel to be my greatest Rebbe. I have learned a great many lessons from Shmuel over the last three years, many of which I have shared on this forum, and I am sure I will continue to do so long into the future if only I can keep my eyes clear from the blinding smoke of ego and sophistication. But chief among these lessons is the simple, teach-by-example, masterclass in youthful excitement, simplicity, wonder, and innocence that my toddler embodies on a daily basis. The Princess of inspired living I have devoted my life to speak about? The one that gets lost? He hasn’t yet been deprived of her spirit. That Princess vanishes, as Rebbe Nachman tells us, on a journey – the journey from youth to adulthood which Shmuel has not yet begun. And I wonder, when indeed does that journey begin? We are all familiar with the well-known stops along the way; adolescent self-discovery, bullying in school, teenage rebellion etc. But when does it begin, this veiling of wide eyes filled with wonder, this focus on externalities, on what divides us? At what moment do we become beholden to the limitations of reality as we perceive it, losing our faith that the world is good, that people are good, that anything is possible for anybody?
I think I know the answer.
For the past three years, Shmuel Shmelke Klein was label-less. Prancing into shul on his own, he could fit into any social scene throughout the spectrum of our communities – Chassidish, Litvish, Yeshivish, Sephardic, Centrist, and Modern-Orthodox alike. He wasn’t threatening to anybody, he communicated no message that could be perceived differently by different people. He just *was* – a delicious, sweet, shining little boy filled with love and joy.
But come Sunday, it begins. Come Sunday, a societal veil of our (his parents’) choosing will descend upon and conceal the label-less essence of our son – a certain kind of payos, a certain kind of kippa. Suddenly he will be easily identifiable, perceived first and foremost by the occupants of every social arena as either an “us” or a “them”, and only then (hopefully!) as a Jew. He will begin to notice these differences, to become attuned to them. To hang out with a certain crowd that looks like him externally. And as the years go by, these distinctions will only become more and more fine-tuned; tzitzis out or tzitzis in; yes hat or no hat, white shirt or blue shirt, black loafers or sneakers etc. With them, on whatever level, will appear a self-identification with these entirely external and inessential constructs – to the tragic detriment of a far more essential identification as that little boy with long, golden hair flowing down his back and a fire in his eyes.
I understand the need for social demarcations and the importance of this element for communal development. I am not suggesting that modes of dress are entirely meaningless, that they do not serve to indicate a certain worldview and perspective. I appreciate the function these material distinctions serve. But a nation that obsesses over these external factors is a nation that has lost touch with its internal identity. There has got to be something deeper than this, something more exalted. Hashem surely must have descended onto Har Sinai for something more than simply to deliver a dress code and reveal His preference of headwear. It means something to be a Jew, something that goes infinitely beyond the way we choose to dress, something that touches the core of our being as individuals – that place where our individuality melts back into the ocean of a collective soul too exalted to describe.
I certainly hope to educate Shmuel in this way, to keep the main thing the main thing, to stress at every possible opportunity that no matter how we may personally choose to dress, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; a cheilek Eloka m’maal mamash – a shining spark of heaven fused together with a body to become manifest in thoughts, words, and actions of holiness in accordance with the Torah’s ways. I will try as best as I can to teach him to see that Godliness in others, to be blind to external divisions and see Yidden first and labels, if we must have them, as decidedly secondary.
But I am just one person. I can’t control who he will encounter, or what hashkafos he will pick up from his teachers in school or his friends on the school bus home. I can’t be there to remind him of his essential identity every time someone makes a comment that reinforces his impression that we are how we look and the clothing we wear.
And so, excitement and gratitude aside, there is a part of me that is ambivalent about Shmuel’s upcoming upsherin. A part of me that is a bit nervous. A bit sad.
Because I know, deep down, that this is where it starts.
And I hope against hope and daven to Hashem that, for Shmuel, and for all the other Shmuels of the world, this won’t be where it ends.