Kabbalas Ol — The Foundation of Avodah
(adapted from Likkutei Sichos Vol. XV, pp. 289ff.)

1. On the verse in Parshas Vayishlach,1Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword...”, the Midrash2 notes that at the time Shimon and Levi killed the people of Shchem they were only thirteen years old, this being the Biblical source for a thirteen year old being obligated to perform mitzvos.3 This is derived from the fact that the verse refers to them as “Ish4 which is a term used only in reference to a grown and intellectually mature person5 who is therefore obligated to keep the commandments.

Although there does exist a possibility that a child before the age of thirteen may be intellectually developed, nonetheless, since he is lacking in maturity, he still lacks the feel both for the precious nature of fulfilling the mitzvos and also the great loss incurred by not keeping them.6 He therefore cannot be held fully responsible for his deeds and conduct, and is not developed enough that we should place upon him the full obligation to keep the mitzvos.

2. On many occasions7 the Rebbes of Chabad delivered a Chassidic discourse on the occasion of a Bar Mitzvah opening8 with the verse,9 “Let us make man (Adam). It is explained in many places that there are four names that Scripture uses to describe man — Adam, Ish, Gever, Enosh — and the greatest title is Adam.10 From this we may understand that a Bar Mitzvah has a connection not only with the level of “Ish” but also with the level of Adam. However this poses a difficulty. If it is sufficient for obligation of mitzvos to reach the level of “Ish,” then why did the Rebbeim connect Bar Mitzvah with the level of Adam?11

Furthermore; the difference between “Ish” and “Adam” lies in the fact that the term “Ish” is used to describe seichel-intellect which has a connection with middos-emotions, and the feelings of the heart.12 There are many different levels of “Ish”, and in fact one only attains a full level of “Ish” at the age of twenty. However the term “Adam” is used to describe the faculty of seichel as it stands higher than the middos. This magnifies the question even more. What is the connection between the level of “let us make man (Adam)” and a Bar Mitzvah — how can one confer the title of “Adam” upon someone who is only thirteen years old?

We must therefore answer that, although by the age of Bar Mitzvah the boy attains the level of “Ish,” nonetheles, in order to fulfill the mitzvos properly one must also be under the influence of the level of “Adam,” as shall be explained.

3. The source from which we may learn that the level of “Ish” does not suffice for mitzvah performance is the very same verse quoted above: “Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword.” Superficially this verse poses a problem: it is the extra dimension of seichel-intellect and daas (intellect that affects the emotions) that is added when a boy reaches the age of thirteen that allows him to take the responsibility for mitzvah performance. How, therefore, can we derive this from a verse whose content — each one taking his sword and killing all the males — is an action which was motivated by strong emotions?13

We must therefore say that from this verse we may learn that not only does a Bar Mitzvah have to be an “Ish” but that the verse also hints at a level of “Adam,” and it is for this reason that the Rebbeim started the maamarim with the words “let us make man (Adam),” to tell us that the level of “Ish” is not enough — there must also be Adam.

The explanation:

Regarding the source from which we learn that a boy is obligated to keep the mitzvos at the age of thirteen, there are in fact two opinions: the first, as derived from the above-mentioned verse, and the second, that the age of thirteen is not derived from any Scriptural source, rather, this is the age that has been received as tradition from Moshe on Sinai as the halachic age of obligation for mitzvos.14

The difference between the two: According to the first opinion, the age of thirteen is an age at which there is a natural intellectual maturity, and the verse, by describing Shimon and Levi as an “Ish,” indicates that at the age of thirteen they had reached that level of maturity. Whereas, according to the second opinion, that the age of thirteen has been received as Mosaic tradition, the age has nothing to do with a natural change, rather it is a halachah.15

The practical halachic difference would arise in the case of a non-Jew, concerning the age at which he is obligated to keep the commandments which are incumbent on non-Jews. According to the first opinion, that the obligation of mitzvos is dependent on human nature, it would follow that non-Jews would also be obligated to keep their commandments at the age of thirteen. However according to the second opinion — that the age of obligation for Jews has been received as Mosaic tradition — it would seem that since non-Jews do not have such a tradition,16 their age of obligation would be subjective, dependent on each one’s understanding and maturity — possibly even at an earlier age than thirteen.17

In avodah, these two opinions represent two different approaches to the question of how a Jew should commence his performance of mitzvos. According to the first opinion, which holds that the obligation to keep the mitzvos is dependent on intellectual maturity,18 it follows that the approach to the performance of mitzvos must be within the realm of the intellect. However according to the second opinion, the reason a thirteen-year old must keep the mitzvos is because that is the Mosaic tradition — it is a halachah — and that is the will of the A-lmighty — which is an approach of kabbalas ol — accepting upon oneself the yoke of heaven.19

4. From the very fact, however, that the first opinion derives the age of thirteen from the account of Shimon and Levi drawing their swords — which in itself is an act of mesirus nefesh, it is clear20 that even according to the first opinion, in addition to the intellectual dimension, there must also be an element of mesirus nefesh transcending the intellect. This is in no contradiction to the aforementioned, namely, that the age of thirteen represents a level of intellectual maturity, it is only adding the detail that the foundation of all avodah must be kabbalas ol and only when the foundation is one of kabbalas ol will the avodah with intellect be as it should be.21

The proof for this lies in the verse22 in Parshas Nitzavim where the people are warned to keep the mitzvos: “See — I have placed before you today life and good, death evil.... and you shall choose life.” The wording of the verse poses a problem: if a person can see for himself that the way of Torah and mitzvos is “life and good” then why is it necessary for him to be told to choose life? The answer: if a person’s choice to keep Torah and mitzvos is based on his intellect and his understanding that they are “life and good,” he has not yet achieved becoming an oved (servant of G‑d). The concept of a true oved is that of one who acts only because the master has commanded him to do so,23 and therefore true avodas Hashem is serving G‑d only because G‑d has commanded us to “choose life.”

However, since the verse begins with the words, “See — I have placed before you...” and also finishes with the words: “choose life” it is clear that it is the will of G‑d that Torah and mitzvos should permeate the entire being, and it is therefore necessary that the intellect, also, must appreciate that Torah and mitzvos is “life and good.” To summarize: there must be both dimensions. The foundation must be kabbalas ol, and inherent in that kabbalas ol is the fact that it is the will of G‑d that the Torah should also be understood intellectually.

5. We will now understand the connection of the verse “Let us make man” with Bar Mitzvah. In the explanation of the title “Adam” there are two dimensions: 1) “Adam” represents full intellectual maturity, as explained above; 2) “Adam” (ost) has the same letters as “m’od,” (stn)24 the dimension of the infinite that transcends the intellect.25 Since both concepts are represented in the same word, one must say that they are related to each other.

The idea in avodah is that even when a person reaches the highest levels of intellect as indicated by the title “Adam” — which is higher than the seichel of “Ish”, nonetheless, he must also attain the level of mesirus nefesh, which transcends intellect.26 And so is it in the obverse case. Even when he is illuminated with the powers of mesirus nefesh which transcend intellect, he should not rest content with that level, rather he should also strive to make this mesirus nefesh permeate his inner powers and, primarily, his intellect.

And this is one of the reasons why the Rebbeim said a maamar beginning with the words “Let us make man (Adam)” on the occasion of a a Bar Mitzvah, to show that even when one has reached a level of intellectual maturity — “Ish”—it is not enough, one has still to strive for the level of mesirus nefesh indicated in the words “Ish charbo” each one his sword, an avodah of mesirus nefesh that transcends intellect, which is connected with the level of “Adam”—the same letters as “m’od.27

Bar Mitzvah — an age of Mesirus Nefesh
ondensed from Likkutei Sichos Vol. V, p. 150ff.)

It is from the verse in Parshas Vayishlach28 : “And it came to pass on the third day, when they (the people of Shchem) were in pain, that two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers each took his sword (ish charbo) and they came upon the city confidently, and killed every male,” that we learn that a boy from the age of thirteen is obligated to keep the mitzvos. Shimon and Levi were at that time thirteen years old,29 and the verse refers to them as an Ish so we may learn that a Bar Mitzvah boy is called an Ish and is obligated in mitzvos.30

Everything in Torah is exact and precise. It is therefore puzzling as to why such an important moment in life — the time of Bar Mitzvah which, as the Midrash31 explains, is the moment when the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) enters the Jew and, as the Alter Rebbe explains,32 is the moment that signals the final and main entry of the holy soul into the Jew, the moment when he becomes fully obligated to keep the mitzvos33 — how can it be that such an important passage of life is derived from the source of Shimon and Levi taking their swords, etc., which on the face of it was an inappropriate act?

True, in killing the people of Shchem they were not transgressing, since the people of Shchem were liable for capital punishment34 (either because they did not bring Shchem to justice for his act,35 or for sins committed prior to the act of Shchem36 ). However, it is clear that their actions were not approved of by their father, Yaakov. Later in Parshas Vayechi,37 at the time of Yaakov’s blessings, he refers to this act: “Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft,” meaning to say, an act of murder of this kind has been stolen from Yaakov’s brother Esav. This is alluded to in the verse itself, where it is stressed that “two of Yaakov’s sons…” that is, although we already know that they were Yaakov’s sons, Scripture finds it important to stress here that they were Yaakov’s sons, since to all appearances they were not acting like sons of Yaakov, for they acted independently, without seeking their fathers advice.38

This amplifies the above question. If this verse itself alludes to the fact that Yaakov was not happy with their conduct, then why particularly from this verse do we derive the source for Bar Mitzvah?

This may be understood by a comment of the Midrash39 on the verse,40 “For in their rage they murdered people (Ish)” — the singular form, Ish, is used. Comments the Midrash: “Did they only kill one man, does it not say that they killed all the males? Only they were all considered before G‑d41 as one man.”

One may ask: the wording: “they murdered people (Ish)” would be appropriate only if the act of Shimon and Levi was in fulfillment of the Will of G‑d, for then one could say that since before G‑d they were considered as one man, so too, in the eyes of Shimon and Levi who were fulfilling the Will of G‑d, were they considered one man — and the brothers received this power from G‑d.42 However we find that Yaakov criticized them for this act, even going so far as to say that this in fact was a trait of his brother Esav. If they were not fulfilling the will of G‑d, then, why does the verse use, in reference to their act of murder, the singular form Ish, to indicate that before G‑d they were only considered as one man?

One must therefore say that although Yaakov agreed in principle that the people of Shchem were liable for capital punishment, he was dissatisfied with the way in which Shimon and Levi carried out their punishment — in such a way that, “You have troubled me, to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land.”43

This we can understand in two ways:

a) Since the only way to punish the people of Shchem was to trick them — first by promising them that if they would consent to be circumcised then, “we will dwell with you and become a single people,”44 — and thereafter abrogating that promise and killing them — Yaakov was of the opinion that it would be better not to kill them in order to avoid the Chillul Hashem (desecration of G‑d’s name) that would result from such trickery.45

b) On the contrary: Yaakov was of the opinion that they should be killed — not through trickery which could result in Chillul Hashem — but openly — since in the eyes of Hashem they were only considered to be one man,46 they (his sons) could act with impunity.47

However, Yaakov was also well aware that Shimon and Levi, due to their intrinsic characters would not reckon with the claim, “you have made me odious etc.,” for the cry of “should our sister be made a harlot?!” aroused in them a terrific sense of jealousy of holiness, similar to that of Pinchas, who was in fact a descendent of Levi.48

Jealousy of this kind is deeply rooted in the soul, as it states: “their zeal for vengeance is hard as the grave”49 and it touches the very essence of the soul.50 When such terrific jealousy is aroused, there is no room for intellectual calculation.51

Since Shimon and Levi were jealous for G‑d — their actions transcending all calculation — G‑d’s power was also revealed in the sense that in His eyes they were only considered as one “Ish (man).”

The above explanation remains problematic:

If Shimon and Levi did act out of holy jealousy — above all calculations — then why were they criticized for not taking Yaakov’s advice before they acted? Advice is rational — their actions were by their nature irrational?

The explanation:

It is for this reason that the verse describes them as “the two sons of Yaakov;” although they were his children, they did not act like his children. This may be understood to mean: True, it could not be demanded of them that they consult with Yaakov, since they were motivated by great jealousy which stands above all advice. However, what could have been demanded is that they consult Yaakov purely from the perspective of the mitzvah of Kibbud Av — honoring their father.

But this still remains problematic.

If the criticism that “they did not take advice” was attributable to a lack of Kibbud Av, their resultant action should not have been approved by Hashem. In this case the original question returns — why does the verse use the singular form Ish, implying that all the inhabitants were in Hashem’s eyes as one man, and that, therefore, Hashem approved of their course of action?

Clear analysis of the mitzvah of Kibbud Av shows that there is a major difference between the Kibbud Av practiced by a Noachide and the Kibbud Av demanded of a Jew. The mitzvah of Kibbud Av to which a Jew is held is a mitzvah from Hashem and is kept as such — one connects with Hashem through honoring one’s parents. However, the mitzvah of Kibbud Av of a Noachide has different parameters. In the Noachide code, honor due to parents is a commandment given in order to create a stable society.52

Living before the giving of the Torah, Shimon and Levi were obligated in the mitzvah of Kibbud Av in the same way as a Noachide. The obligation to consult their father was certainly not applicable in this situation, given that the actions of Shchem were an abomination and the opposite of “settling the world.” In order for Shimon and Levi to achieve a stable law abiding society, it was necessary for them to correct a criminal act.

This being the case, we need to search for an alternative explanation as to why Yaakov was so upset at their not having sought his advice.

As explained above, the cry, “should our sister be made a harlot?!” affected Shimon and Levi so deeply that they were driven to act in a manner uncharacteristic of the sons of Yaakov. They were so enveloped in their feelings, they saw no other option but to annihilate Shchem.

It is for this reason that when they were challenged by Yaakov, they answered, “Should our sister etc.,” and Yaakov accepted their answer. Later, however, he rebuked them — for after he saw that, “at their whim they hamstrung an ox” — this proved that they had a natural tendency to such actions, and it suggested that even in the killing of Shchem, although predominantly motivated by the cry, “should our sister etc.,” there was a tinge of this natural tendency.

This explains why, in his rebuke, Yaakov says, “Shimon and Levi are brothers” — brothers to Dinah but not brothers to Yosef53 — in other words, the fact that they acted as brothers to Dinah, but not to Yosef, confirms the suspicion that in their killing of Shchem there was mixed into their intentions a twist of their own character — their weaponry a stolen craft.

The age of Bar Mitzvah

We now see why the age of Bar Mitzvah is derived from the account of the actions of Shimon and Levi. The story teaches us how to act when faced with a situation of harlotry. In truth, every sin is an act of harlotry as alluded to in the verse, “and you shall not turn after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray,” — for when one is torn away from Hashem through sin, this may be compared to a harlot who is prohibited to her husband.54

One must know that in such a situation one should not reckon with any calculations or limitations — even limitations of Torah — one must at that moment arouse in himself a feeling of mesirus nefesh.

After one has aroused a feeling of mesirus nefesh, thereafter all one’s actions must be calculated, rational and according to the Torah. It is only in order that rational avodah may be all that it must be that mesirus nefesh is a prerequisite— immediately on becoming an Ish he acquires mesirus nefesh, which is above all rationale.