Rabbi Hoffman: Are You Ready for This? B’nai Mitzvah
The journey toward becoming a bar or bat mitzvah* begins around the kitchen table months before the big day. We sit together and begin to detail all the elements of preparation.
“Are you learning to chant some Torah?”
“Are you going to be reading the Haftarah portion?”
“Will you be leading the community in prayers?”
“You’re going to give a speech – a d’var Torah?”
“Will you be having a celebration – a seudat mitzvah?”
Each question is typically answered with a nod of the head by the child and even by the parents. Then I turn to the child and simply ask, “Why are we doing all this?” The response? Nine times out of ten is, “I don’t know!”
At that moment, I give the child assurance, and the nervous parents hoping for a different response, that most young adults respond in a very similar manner. “This sure seems like a lot of work for something you don’t know why you’re doing it.”
The other common response is that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah means you are becoming a man or a woman. Where the child would expect me, the Rabbi, to move ahead as if the correct answer to the question had finally been given, I press forward and challenge the thinking. “So, does that mean you are now responsible for things like the adults in your life, like getting a job, carrying a mortgage payment, and paying taxes?” With a little laughter and some relief, I immediately encourage the child, and eventually the parents to join me in an exercise of exploring what that really means, of becoming an adult.
Again, the common response is that this moment, with all its rituals and traditions, is a time when the child is now expected to act like an adult Jew. One gains membership in the minyan – the adult prayer community. B’nai Mitzvah are now obligated to take on the practice of fasting on Yom Kippur, the sacred Day of Atonement. A Jewish adult assumes the responsibility for the 613 mitzvot – following all the commandments as outlined by the Torah and tradition. Those are nice sentiments, but that too seems to be a bit fantastic for the limited study time involved in preparing for this one moment.
And here is where the conversation begins. The rituals and practices of Jewish communities around the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are laden with actions to demonstrate competency in the language of Judaism. That’s an important skill to acquire for sure. Ultimately, though, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a quest for independence, which the texts and wisdom of the Jewish tradition guides us to embrace in our adult lives.
After some further exploration, every child eventually finds a better response to the question. Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is about taking on new responsibilities. Responsibilities like caring for oneself, from everything to doing the laundry, to making healthy and responsible decisions with friends when parents aren’t around to make them for the young adult. Parents surely love to hear more of that! Growing in independence is the ultimate journey to adulthood. The Jewish tradition venerates this age of maturity by filling the child with wisdom, spirit, and joy. And the expression of this knowledge through a rite of passage is much gentler than going into the wilderness to hunt and kill a deer, or wrestle with a bear.
So, I turn to the young adult after this discussion of what independence means and why the Jewish tradition expects them to understand and interpret their experience of the world through the lens of Torah. I ask one more question, “Are you ready for all this?” Nine times out of ten the response is a confident, “Yes!”
After all this interrogation of the child, I turn to the parent(s) and ask, “Why are we doing all this?” The adults, a little surprised, begin to outline the connection to the tradition. And with a little guidance to speak directly about their child in particular, the responses also become a little more confident. All the guidance, influence, and experience the child has been given has prepared the young adult to take on the role of responsibility. I invite the parents to consider this as the frame for the blessing they will eventually bestow upon their child at some point during the ceremony too. And I ask them, “Is your child ready for all this?” Even with the natural trepidation of letting go, parents proudly respond ‘yes’ too.”
In some ways, this informal conversation around the kitchen table is more significant than the ceremony itself. On the big day, there will be a flood of emotions, a little anxiety, and an abundance of joy. After the quest for independence has been initiated, the day is a real celebration of what has already been learned and a hopeful promise for what is yet to be discovered. Everyone is a little different after the ceremony. The seats around the table may be the same, but the conversations and words of guidance are deeper and more enriching. Ultimately, independence is the celebration of confidence in the capacity to choose others and be chosen by them to walk faithfully and proudly together. In this light, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is the most powerful and promising of all sacred moments.
“So. Are you ready for all this?”
Rabbi Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi in Southern California. His three children became b’nai mitzvah and have learned to do their laundry…eventually. His forthcoming book, The Holiness of Doubt, outlines the 275 questions of the Torah and invites commentary on how questions inspire faith.
* Many are using gender neutral terms for this Jewish rite of passage, like kabbalat mitzvah, receiving the commandments, or simchat mitzvah, rejoicing in the commandments. For the purposes of this article, I refer to the ceremony with the gender distinction for familiarity and embrace the diverse expressions of the moment as well.
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