A 7-point guide to the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony
(continued from last week)
Upon reaching age 13, a boy begins the obligation to put on tefillin every day (except Shabbat and holidays).
Tefillin are two square, black leather boxes, which contain parchments of Torah verses. Attached to each box are black leather straps. One of the boxes is worn on the bicep, and the other is worn on the front of the head.
The two boxes represent the two ways that we serve God in this world: thought (the head) and action (the arm). The arm-tefillin contains one parchment in one compartment, whereas the head-tefillin is four parchments, each in its own separate compartment. This is to signify that in service of God, the two powers must work congruently: We use the totality of our mind to gain the full perspective, and then we act with a singular clarity of purpose.
Inside each tefillin box are parchments containing four Torah sections, which speak about God’s unity, the obligation to observe the commandments, and the responsibility to transmit Judaism to our descendants.
If you’re really feeling generous, Tefillin is a wonderful gift for a Bar Mitzvah boy. Owning a pair of Tefillin (and wearing them!) is an important part of Jewish identity. But since they are expensive (about $400), not every Bar Mitzvah boy has a pair.
(6) The First Bar Mitzvah
Now here’s a Jewish trivia question: Who was the first person to have a Bar Mitzvah?
We could actually suggest three answers:
1) Abraham – The first person to begin observing some of the mitzvot was “the first Jew,” Abraham. However, he was older than age 13 when he started, so…
2) Isaac was the first person who was “Jewish” upon reaching age 13. The Torah writes, “And Abraham made a great party on the day” (Genesis 21:8), which the Midrash explains was a celebration for Isaac becoming Bar Mitzvah.
3) Mount Sinai – Only when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai did Jews became truly obligated to observe the mitzvot. Therefore, the Sinai experience was actually a mass Bar/Bat Mitzvah of the entire Jewish people.
(7) What’s Next?
Some have the misconception that Jewish practice is confined to the synagogue, or to an occasional holiday celebration at home. The truth is that Torah and mitzvot punctuate every moment of our lives: setting standards for business ethics, proper speech, honoring parents, what we eat, and even how to care for pets!
We refer to these laws as Torat Chaim, literally “instructions for living.” Torah is the ultimate “owner’s manual” for maximizing our pleasure and potential in life.
Torah is a basis for life’s most important questions: How can I live a meaningful life? How can I build successful relationships, deal honestly in business, and fulfill my personal potential? How can I really make a difference in the world?
Torah study emphasizes building a rational basis of belief, to engage one’s mind, stimulate the intellect through questioning and debate, and thereby nourish the soul. It does not endorse a leap of faith, all-or-nothing decisions, or disengagement from the world.
The goal of any Jew is not only to study the Torah, but to become a “living Torah,” who embodies the lofty ideals of “love your neighbor,” “peace on earth,” “justice for all,” “universal education,” “all men are created equal,” “dignity of the individual,” and “the preciousness of life.” These concepts all originate from the Torah, and these have defined the moral makeup of humanity.
In Jewish life, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah does not represent the culmination of one’s Jewish education, but rather a stepping-stone to a more mature and profound relationship with Jewish learning.
This is illustrated by the following idea: If even one letter is missing from a Torah scroll, it is rendered invalid. According to tradition, each Jew corresponds to one letter in the Torah. This teaches that each and every one of us has an integral role to play in the future of the Jewish people.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah means to become educated, and to strengthen one’s Jewish pride through knowledge and understanding. It means to grow Jewishly, one step at a time. It means standing up for Israel and respecting every Jew. It means taking responsibility for the world, using the Torah as our guide, because that is the mission of the Jewish people. And most of all, it means to love being Jewish.
Success in achieving these goals is what we wish for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and the beginning of that journey is what we celebrate on this joyous occasion.