Cary Kozberg

What did you hear at Sinai? To new b’nei mitzvah

As the summer begins to wind down and youngsters begin to prepare for going back to school, young Jews in the 12- to13-year old age range are most likely gearing up for their bar/bat mitzvah during the upcoming school year, as are their families. While the students are learning their respective Torah/Haftarah portions and preparing their speeches, the parents most likely are focusing on preparing guest lists, ordering invitations, and arranging with caterers for the after-ceremony celebrations. Older siblings may be sharing their own personal take-aways of their own bar/bat mitzvah, while younger siblings hopefully are anticipating their own.

But, given how the typical American bar/bat mitzvah celebration has evolved from once-upon-time consisting of a modest and simple kiddish following the service (cake and perhaps some schnapps) into a major, often-over-the-top extravaganza, the old joke about these celebration focusing more on the “bar” and less on the “mitzvah” has become an indisputable fact.

Those of us who are serious about Jewish religious life continually ask: how to restore the focus on more “mitzvah”? How to make the young person’s “big day” an event that will be full of a meaning that will be lasting?

Perhaps a place to start would be if rabbis, cantors, and tutors– everyone involved with preparing soon-to-be-adult Jews for this momentous life event—would personally communicate to them sentiments along these lines:

Letter to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Student


First of all, mazel tov on your upcoming big day!

As you approach becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, we hope that in addition to enjoying the celebration, that you also understand and appreciate the true significance of this milestone in your life: you are now beginning to forge your own unique link in a chain that began over 3500 years ago…and is continuing! Indeed, it is our fervent hope that you will not be among those who have chosen to be the final links in this chain, On the contrary, we hope that as you move into adulthood, you will continue to nurture this desire to keep this chain going, and that it will grow and always be a part of who you are as a Jew. We hope that it will inspire you to eventually have children of your own who themselves will be new links, and that their children will in turn eventually add new links.

Now…your reaction to what I’ve just said is probably “Whoa! Hold on! I’m still a kid– and you’re talking about my having kids??”

Yeah…didn’t mean to freak you out. You probably haven’t gotten that far in your thinking about your own future. Given that you are just beginning your teenage years, you probably haven’t given much thought to getting married and having a family of your own. And thoughts about you personally fit into the future of the Jewish people have probably not appeared on your radar screen. So, let me share a few thoughts that hopefully will make what I’m telling you a bit less abstract and “out there”, but really more personal.

The rabbis of old taught that when G-d spoke the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at that moment. That sounds kinda “out there”, and obviously not every soul there actually had a body. But, nevertheless, they imagined that every Jewish soul was there to hear those words that would transform a bunch of newly freed slaves into a people with a sacred purpose. What they were getting at is this: receiving the Torah is not supposed to be understood as an event that happened “once upon a time”. It is supposed to be a personal experience that one can relate to in the present. It’s not enough to just sit in a religious school class and hear the words from a teacher, who heard them from his/her teacher, who heard them from his/her teacher…all the way back.

Nope, not at all!

This notion that every Jewish soul that ever existed was present at Sinai, is to remind us that the Torah was not just given to the Jewish people, but more importantly to each individual Jew. And therefore, connecting to it should be an individual, personal experience—an experience that you have not, just with your head, but, more importantly, with your heart!! This is really what becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah means: as a new “son/daughter of the commandments”, you have been given the opportunity to personally receive the Torah, JUST LIKE YOU HAD IT 3500 YEARS AGO WHEN YOU STOOD WITH THE REST OF US AT MT. SINAI.

But there’s more…

Those rabbis of old also taught that not only did every single Jewish soul hear G-d speak, but each person heard what was spoken, according to their own individual ability: men according to their ability, women according to theirs; the elderly according to their ability, the young according to their ability. And…let’s say that if G-d was able to make that happen, then certainly G-d was able to speak to every individual there in a personal way, and give each person a special message, directed only to them.

So… with this in mind, let me make this suggestion to you (and if it sounds too weird or silly, just work with me for a bit). If you really want to make your Bar/Bat Mitzvah an event that will be personally and uniquely meaningful to you; if you want it to be an event that you will remember as having been a special and not just a chore and something you had to go through, try this little exercise:

A few minutes before the service begins, or just before you are called to the Torah for your first aliyah, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine yourself going back in time, and actually standing at Mount Sinai with literally all your fellow Jews. Imagine all of you anticipating something what is about to happen—a “once-in-history” experience that will be incredibly miraculous, truly “awe-some”.

Imagine the people there–what they look like—different folks from different places. Imagine the sounds you can hear, that are gradually getting quieter as everybody gets ready to listen. Imagine the smells—of the wilderness, of sheep and cattle, of your own clothes. Imagine who is standing nearby: your friends and fellow students, your parents, your grandparents, even your ancestors from the place your family originally came from before coming to America. Just imagine it all.

And then… imagine all of you hearing the Voice. And the Voice speaks the words, “I AM THE LORD YOUR G-D…”. And when the Voice finishes speaking to all of you, the Voice speaks only to you. Whatever the Voice says just to you–THAT’S YOUR UNIQUE MESSAGE. And it’s not just for this day. It’s for the rest of your life.

Even if you’re not able to fully understand or appreciate it—just remember it and tuck it away in your head and your heart. As you move on in your life, as you experience life’s milestones—graduations, marriage, having your own kids—as you face and respond to challenges and celebrate your successes: those are great moments to think about, and hopefully gain strength from, your personal Message.

As you become a new link in our continuing chain, may whatever the Voice says to you continue to inspire you and give you strength and blessing.

And again…mazel tov!

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Dayton Jewish Observer.)

About the Author
Cary Kozberg is rabbi of Temple Sholom, Springfield, Ohio.