Another of my Bnai Mitzvah students, an exceptional young man, will be having his Bar Mitzvah this coming Shabbat, Sabbath, the one just before Pesach, Passover. The Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. There are a number of reasons for this designation, an obvious one being it occurs ahead of an important biblical holiday, with all its history, its careful preparation, and the rules that will soon apply.
To my Bar Mitzvah boy’s credit, he was as interested in performing his Torah (Bible portion), Haftorah (Prophets portion), Musaf (leading of the prayer service) and Dvar Torah (Torah insights speech) in the most beautiful manner possible, as he was in simply doing a great job overall. For example, when given a rendition choice for a prayer in the Musaf, he chose the more elaborate and so, more difficult, but upon flawless execution, much sweeter version. Perfect for his sweet-sounding voice.
A lot of people believe a child becomes a Bnai (Bar or Bat) Mitzvah when he or she is called up to the Torah (an Aliyah) and chants the blessings before and after a particular portion in the Bible. Or the child does more, as noted above, the training involving many months, even a year, of preparation.
Not so. The child becomes a Bnai Mitzvah, one who is responsible for keeping the Mitzvot – the Torah’s dos and don’ts commandments – upon turning 13 for a boy, or 12 for a girl. Simple as that. The moment could have actually already passed a day or two or more before the Aliyah.
No melodious reading of the Torah is necessary. No articulate speechifying required. Shhh, don’t tell the kids. (“Today… I am… a man. Wait. What? You mean I am already. Just like that? I didn’t need to do all this?? Arg!”) That whole Torah reading, Haftorah reading et. al., is more of a custom, begun many believe, sometime in the Middle Ages.
According to Jewish practice, a parent or parents, may say a short prayer at the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, “Baruch shepitarani mei-onsho shel zeh (or zu for a girl),” “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment of this one.” Nice, huh.
See, according to tradition, until the child becomes a Bnai Mitzvah, the good behavior he or she has demonstrated belongs within that young person’s spiritual accounting. The bad behavior? That’s right. The parents own it. Not simply to punish Dad or Mom for their child’s youthful transgressions, but because it is the duty of each parent to properly train and prepare their children for life’s interactions. If a boy or girl fails, then poor parenting could very well have been the cause.
Graduating into spiritual responsibility and accountability brings about a certain independence, and even though, let’s face it, a kid is still a kid, there is an acceptance by both child and parent that things will be different. The arrival of one’s Bnai Mitzvah ceremony is a major milestone. High school is just around the corner. Shortly after that, leaving the protective confines of the home to pursue educational, vocational, and other life endeavors.
Regarding our forefather Jacob and his twin Esau, the Torah said in Bereishit, Genesis, 25:27, “And the boys grew up.” Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, explained, the whole time the boys were small, they were indistinguishable from each other in regards to their deeds, and their character was not scrutinized. As soon as they became 13, Rashi quoting the Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries), (Bereishit Rabbah, 63:10), said, “One (Jacob) went off to study, and the other (Esau) to worship idols.”
Continuing with the Midrash, we find the source for the above-mentioned practice. “Rabbi Elazar said, ‘A man must look after his son until he is 13. From then on, he needs to say, ‘Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment of this one.’”
Translating this two-way “independence” into modern times, standing next to a son who has, after all the ceaseless child-rearing instruction and worry, matriculated into “metaphorical manhood,” a now untethered-to-his-son’s-Mitzvah-shortcomings father, uttering those ancient words, “Baruch shepitarani…” might be thinking, “Whew! OK. Now that this Bar-Mitzvah thing is over, kiddo, you are on your own. Your mother and I have been talking, and we would like you out of the house by Wednesday. Good luck!”
But of course, “Baruch shepitarani…” or not, no decent parent will leave his child flailing about just because the 12th or 13th birthday will have passed. Till then and forever, a parent still teaches and is still available, so parent and child are independent but also dependent upon one another.
My latest newly, soon-to-be initiated, Bar Mitzvah boy, his excellent upbringing easily evident, has worked very hard in preparation for his big day, his own personal Shabbat Hagadol. He will stand tall and proud, and with exquisite proficiency, he will remind the gathered loved ones and friends, that like him, we as a people after so many sacrifices, have come a long way, that our traditions, handed down from generation to generation are at the same time age-old, and yes, very new.