This Shabbat marks the bar mitzvah of my nephew, Yonatan Tal Feigelson. We are in Israel for the occasion, and the dvar Torah below is in his honor.

An interesting adjective used to describe the sacrifices at the beginning of Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) is tamim. Aaron is instructed to bring a calf and a ram that are tamim, which we learn elsewhere means without blemish (see Ibn Ezra on Lev. 1:3). I do not necessarily want to go through an entire etymology of tamim in reference to the sacrificial system, as much as to point out its usage here and attempt to draw from it some additional significance.

The first instance of the word tamim in the Torah is in the introduction of Noah: “Noah was a righteous, whole (tamim) man in his generation.” (Gen. 6:9) We encounter the word again in the commandment to Abram to circumcise the male members of his household: “And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El-Shaddai, walk before me and be whole (tamim).’” (Gen. 17:1) While the midrashic and medieval commentators ascribe a number of meanings to the word, the straightforward definition is whole or complete, as Rashi comments on the instance involving Abram: “Be complete (shalem) in all of my tests for you.” In this sense the use of tamim for both Noah and Abraham, and for the sacrifices in parshat Shemini, are the same: both the people and the animals are to be whole, complete.

I would propose that the word for us today connotes another translation: integrity. To have integrity is to be whole, complete, to be integrated. Yet when we introduce the idea of integrity, we assume in the background the possibility of dis-integration, the possibility of separate parts. In this sense the idea of tamim as applied to animals and people is different: An animal with a bodily defect cannot necessarily be repaired, but a person with a spiritual or ethical defect can repair him- or herself. Indeed, it is through the process of circumcision that Abram is understood to become tamim—that is, through changing an aspect of his person. He is not born complete. Thus, as applied to people, I would argue that integrity is a better translation of temimut, the state of being tamim. To be tamim is to live in wholeness with the possibility of being separated.

Reading the Four Sons of the Passover seder last week, we may have approached these children as two pairs, which are best understood when read in reverse order: The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask and the Tam or Simple child constitute the first pair, and the Rebellious and Wise children constitute the second. I reverse the order because I believe when read this way they signify the journey of a human being toward adult consciousness. The older children have their own identities, which they negotiate in relationship with the identity of the community. Where the Wise child includes himself in the narrative of the Jewish People, the Rebellious child does not. They are praised or chastised accordingly, because they are assumed to be old enough to have their own sense of self, to be responsible for their words and actions.

The other children, in this reading, are assumed to be younger, or to display a pre-adult consciousness. The first has no capacity for language: he does not even know how to ask. The second, the Tam, is right on the line: He has language (“What is this?”) but it would seem that he still lives in a world in which he has not encountered the possibility of separating himself, the choice of his older brothers. That is what makes him Tam.

Tam, of course, is the root of Tamim. As Henry David Thoreau found on his sojourn in the woods, simplicity is the root of wholeness: Simplify, simplify, simplify. Adults, particularly adults in the modern world with its fundamental notion of the existence of a self with inviolable integrity (“among these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), face the choice of how to relate to other people and to the more general idea of society as a whole. Adults have a public face, a public language, a public identity which is different than their private one. Children must be taught proper language and behavior—that is, the distinction between public and private—in order to become adults. Thus the Tam is the child on the way to being socialized, the child who still retains his innate sense of integrity, who has not yet learned the distinguish his language and identity between his public and private selves.

To be a Jewish adult, then, is to leave the world of innate integrity and enter the world of possible integrity. It is in one sense to seek the prior knowledge, the simpler times, that we left behind when we grew up. But being an adult is not about trying to be a child; it is rather about making choices that align our public and private personalities, our actions with our values. God’s charge to Abram, “Hithalech lifanai v’heyei tamim,” walk before me and be a person of integrity, is test of Jewish adulthood. The question for a person of integrity is always, What do I want the story to be? because an adult has the possibility of writing his or her own story.

The highpoint, or perhaps lowpoint, of the Torah portion this week comes at a moment of profound dis-integrity, when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring a “strange fire” before God. Within our reading, we can understand an additional element of integrity, that it requires knowing what is appropriate and when. We do not know exactly why Nadav and Avihu’s offering was so summarily rejected, but we do know that it was out of place. As God tells Aaron later on, there is a time and place to come into the Holy of Holies, in a way that does not result in death, the ultimate disintegration with Creation. Perhaps theirs was a selfish move, perhaps it was an altruistic attempt at a greater level of holiness—there are interpretations to support a variety of readings. But we do know from their example that acting with integrity means also understanding limits, and knowing when to seek unity and when to keep things separate.

In recent months and years, we have seen example after example of Jewish adults who have failed to maintain their integrity, whether in their stewardship of other people’s money, affairs of state, or basic human decency. At the root of all these failures is a lack of alignment between telos and praxis, values and actions. Perhaps they never had the values in the first place, but that only intensifies the question: How do we raise children to be responsible adults, tamim adults?

Yoni, as you become a bar mitzvah today, our prayer and blessing for you is that you be an adult of integrity, v’heyei tamim. You have been raised in a home with a deep sense of responsibility to the Jewish People, by parents who have sacrificed much in order to raise you and your sisters as citizens of the Jewish state. Our hope for you and your siblings is that you live lives of temimut, that you become adults who will live out the deepest values of the Torah: Hesed v’rachamim, tzedek u’mishpat, mercy and lovingkindness, righteousness and justice. While this is the challenge of Jewish adults in every generation, now more than ever the Jewish People and the world need you to be a man of integrity.

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