It’s time to grow up

Religion, August 2010 Jewish Observer

By Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz, Temple Israel

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

One of my greatest joys comes from working with youths (and adults) in our community who have chosen to publicly affirm their commitment to Judaism and performing mitzvot (commandments) through Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

So much preparation goes into the day: learning Hebrew, practicing prayers, studying Torah, preparing a d’var Torah, not to mention assigning aliyahs, planning parties, and finding just the right tallit.

Exhausting as all of this can be, at some point the Bar or Bat Mitzvah will doubtlessly ask, “Why is turning 13 not enough on its own? After all, whether we prepare or not, don’t we become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah simply by reaching the right age?”

The child raises a valid and excellent point. In Pirke Avot we learn that “at 13 a person is ready for the mitzvot.”

Avot de Rabbi Natan further explores what this suggests: “What does ‘ready for the mitzvot’ mean? It means that they are now ready to control their own urges and impulses.”

To rephrase this, it means that upon Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we must actually become “grown ups” rather than simply “grown olds.”

As we know, children are not obligated to be in control of their urges and impulses, nor are they held entirely responsible, legally and morally, for their actions until they are considered adults.

Parents sign permission slips, co-sign for contracts and take responsibility for any damage the child might cause; they make sure that children are dressed appropriately, have finished their homework, remembered their lunch, chosen nutritious snacks, and said they were sorry when they accidentally hurt another child.

Then, all of a sudden, everything changes upon Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Children are required, rather than simply encouraged, to perform mitzvot.

They essentially receive their own membership card into the Jewish community. But rather than handing his son a “welcome” packet, the father recites: “Blessed is the One who has relieved me of punishment for this one’s sins!”

In this traditional prayer, the father issues a statement of faith on how the child was raised and the values he has internalized.

We often lose sight of it, but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is not only about hard work, goals accomplished or the fabulous party that is planned. Rather, it is a symbolic handing over of moral authority.

Upon Bar/Bat Mitzvah, children are increasingly responsible for making grown-up decisions and accepting both the praise and punishment of their choices. They must begin writing their own chapters in their books of life.

We are now entering into Elul, the month that precedes the High Holy Days. During Elul, an auspicious time, we begin the work of recreating ourselves.

During this time, we are told that God is closest to the Jewish people and so we embark on the earnest task of cheshbon hanefesh (taking inventory of our soul) and examining the life we are leading.

It is through this self-reflection that we turn back to the pivotal moments that have brought us to where we are today.

Taking responsibility for our choices begins when we become B’nai Mitzvah, when we become accountable for ourselves before God.

Rummaging through our memories and examining our actions can be complicated.

Like cleaning out the attic, we find there are some we would like to put behind us and get rid of, but there are also some that we wish we could savor, to hold onto until they are made even more beautiful with time.

It is a painful task to examine the choices we make. We must be honest with ourselves in a way that we might normally not, taking responsibility for our actions and seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged.

The task of cheshbon hanefesh asks of us once again to become “grown up” instead of just “grown old” before God.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, let us reflect on our choices, examine how well we have done keeping our urges and impulses in check, and define once again what it is to be a Jewish adult.

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