A Measure of Maturity

The Cadillacs were all lined up in the driveway. Minks of many colours were on display. The caterer was the best that money can buy. It was David Cohen’s bar mitzvah day. Uncle Abe flew in from Cincinnati. Aunt Betty drove up from Miami Beach.

The Rabbi was watching with a tear in his eye, As David Cohen read his bar mitzvah speech.

“I want to thank the Rabbi, my mother and my father. Today I am a man by Jewish law. I accept all my Jewish obligations. I acknowledge that there’s only one God.”

That was the last time David saw a Rabbi. His Tallis and his Tefillin, they got lost.

He’s now a lawyer up in Sacramento.

And looking back it wasn’t worth the cost.

(Megama Duo 1981)

Don’t dance at weddings; wait for the anniversary. When good friends have a child, save your cash, wait till it develops a personality and then decide if you want to send a present. House warming gift; for how long did they sign the lease? In an age of quickie divorce, irritating kids and a fast paced real estate market, how can one be sure that today’s mood of merriment won’t fade faster than the flowers? How about bar and bat mitzvah?

The next time you’re forced to watch some baby-faced pre-pubescent warble his uncertain way through the Haftorah ask yourself “what’s it all for?” The next Sunday afternoon you devote to watching the bat mitzvah girl’s 29 best friends divide 12 candles between themselves and as you endure her 35-minute piano-accordion solo, ask yourself “What exactly are we celebrating?”

And what about the object of all the attention? Is that all there is to his or her adolescent rite of passage — a few formalities, make the grandmothers proud, open the presents, cash the cheques, hear the “today I am a fountain-pen” joke from seven separate uncles and on with the rest of their life?

B’nei mitzvah and mitzvot have reached an impasse in popular imagination. While proud parents vie to outlavish the Cohens and outlandish theme-based parties become the butt of comedians’ jokes, others have become wearied and question the need for the ceremony altogether.

In fact bar and bat mitzvah have been attacked many times before. In the mid 19th century, reformers proposed adapting them to accord with the legal age for attaining majority. And many people nowadays insist on detecting discrimination in the distinct ages for males and females and suggest celebrating both at 13.

However the observance of bar/bat mitzvah is too significant to fall hostage to the vagaries of contemporary political correctness. The ages 12 and 13 simply recognise the observable reality that the sexes mature at different rates.

At bar/bat mitzvah the fledgling Jew is expected to have attained the emotional maturity to differentiate right and wrong. Accountability for one’s actions and refusal to blame others for one’s shortcomings are hallmarks of responsible adult behaviour.

These however are merely reflections of more elevated attainments. It is not just to celebrate the initiation into adult society that family and friends gather. One’s induction into Jewish adulthood is marked by the gift of true Jewish consciousness — the yetzer tov (the inclination to virtue). One is now bar or bat mitzvah — a child of mitzvot and capable of forming a mature relationship with God.

The Midrash relates that when our forefather Avraham threw a 13th birthday party for his son Yitzchak all the “great men of the time” gathered to scoff. Imagine investing all one’s hopes and future aspirations in this scrawny runt able to be “crushed under the thumb!” (Bereshit Rabba 53:10).

Yitzchak and his descendants have had the last laugh. Where are these “great men” and the nations they founded? Gone, vanished, vanquished. Though Yitzchak, like many a bar/bat mitzvah child, may be less than fully developed physically, this does not preclude eventual rise to greatness.

A Jew’s true strength comes not from military prowess or physical valour. Our Torah and mitzvot are the secret of our fantastic longevity and this was what Avraham was celebrating; his son’s ascension into true adulthood and full mitzvah observance.

A few years ago I met a remarkable person, one I feel proud to call a friend. Having transferred to a Jewish school a few years into secondary school, he was experiencing some small trouble in keeping up in class and his teacher asked me to provide some extra tutoring.

When asked what had occasioned his change of schools, he recalled a scene from his bar mitzvah. His father had been called up to make the traditional blessing through which the father absolves himself from his son’s future actions. “I figured that if I am really an adult and responsible for myself, I have to learn what it means to be a Jew. So I asked my parents to switch me to a Jewish school.”

A 13 year old with that degree of maturity, sensitivity to his responsibilities and acceptance of personal duty — now that’s worth celebrating.

This article is by Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum who is the Rabbi at Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne.
This article republished with thanks to the Australian Jewish News.