‘What did you hear at Mt. Sinai?’

An open letter to a bar/bat mitzvah student

By Rabbi Cary Kozberg, Temple Sholom, Springfield

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 3,500 years ago…and is continuing!

Indeed, it is our fervent hope that you will not be among those who have chosen to stop adding to this chain, but instead, that as you grow into full adulthood, you will continue to nurture the 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 also add new links.

Now…your reaction to what I’ve just said is probably “Whoa! Hold on! I’m still basically a kid…and you’re talking about ME 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 how you will personally fit into the future of the Jewish people have probably not yet appeared on your radar screen.

So, let me share a few thoughts that hopefully will make what I’m telling you a bit less “out there,” but instead more personal.

The rabbis of old taught that when God spoke the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at that moment.

Now, that does sound kind of “out there.” If it’s true, obviously not every soul there actually had a body. But nevertheless, they imagined that every Jewish soul was there to hear the 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 was and 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 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 a person has — not just with their head, but more importantly with their 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 as you did 3,500 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 God speak, but each person heard what was spoken, according to their own individual ability: men according to their abilities, women according to theirs, the elderly according to their abilities, the young according to theirs.

And… if God was truly able to make that happen, then certainly God was able to speak to every individual there in a more personal way and give each person a 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, well…just work with me for a bit).

If you really want to make your bar/bat mitzvah truly special and truly personally and uniquely meaningful to you; if you want it to be an event that you will remember as having been 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 really standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai with literally all your fellow Jews.

Imagine anticipating with us something that is about to happen — a “once-in-history” experience that will be incredibly miraculous and truly “awe-some.”

Imagine the people there: what they look like, different people from different places, of various color and facial features.

Imagine the sounds you 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 hearing the Voice. The Voice speaks the words, “I am the LORD your God…”

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 the day of your bar/bat mitzvah. It’s for the rest of your life.

Even if you’re not able to fully understand or appreciate it —I ask you to 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 life’s challenges and celebrate your successes: those are great moments in which to recall, think about, and hopefully gain strength from your personal message.

As you forge a new link in our continuing chain, may you listen to what the Voice said to you so long ago. And may its message continue to inspire and bless you.

And again…mazel tov!

To read the complete August 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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