By Rabbi Nathan Farb
When I find myself working with young students for their B’nai Mitzvah, they often ask me why we have all of these traditions for becoming B’nai Mitzvah. I tend to explain it like this: a bar or bat mitzvah is not something you have, but it’s something that you become. In fact, most students are shocked to hear that they become a bar or bat mitzvah automatically when they turn 12 or 13, whether they lead a service or not! So what does it really mean to be a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? We often say it means that you are a Jewish adult, but that’s only half of the story. In reality it means that you are a responsible Jewish adult. As in, you have Jewish responsibilities.
What is every Jewish adult responsible for? There are three categories of mitzvahs that we are all obligated in, regardless of our upbringing or denomination. They are: commitment to the Jewish community, studying and teaching Torah, and working to make the world a better place. The ceremonies of being acknowledged as a bar or bat mitzvah in our congregation include all three of these. Students demonstrate their commitment to the Jewish community by regularly attending services and holiday celebrations, and by leading services themselves. They spend a year studying and preparing their Torah portion, so that they can teach it to the congregation through their d’var Torah. They work to make the world a better place by doing a mitzvah project.
What about Jews past the age of 12 or 13 without ever participating in these rituals? Are they still considered a bar or bat mitzvah? I usually explain it to my young students like this: have you ever been part of a group project where everyone shared responsibility, but somebody didn’t do their part? What do you think of a person like that? Even a student at 12 or 13 years old understands the importance of following through with their obligations. So, they choose to go through the process of being formally acknowledged as a bar or bat mitzvah and demonstrating that they are prepared to be responsible Jewish adults.
Odds are, if you are reading this, you’re well beyond the age of 12 or 13 (popular though I am with the kids, I don’t suspect many of them read these articles). You are responsible Jewish adults. You are b’nai mitzvah. Your have Jewish responsibilities. There are communities in which people think their Jewish responsibilities go away after they become a bar or bat mitzvah. Not the case here. Members of our community understand their obligations, and constantly endeavor to fulfill them. When the Rabbi is away, members of our community lead services on Shabbat. It’s part of our responsibilities. Most adults in our community attend classes on Saturday mornings or during the week to engage in the sacred act of studying together. And, of course, members of our community make significant contributions toward making this world a better place. They volunteer, they serve on nonprofit boards, they work day in and day out to feed and heal and uplift people in the RGV and around the world.
What should you do if you are one of those people who never had the opportunity to lead a service yourself as a bar or bat mitzvah? It is never too late. The process for being recognized as a bar robot mitzvah as an adult is similar to the process our young people go through. You, too, can learn Hebrew an prayers and prepare to lead a service. There will be many more opportunities for learning in the coming year, including Hebrew skills and other workshops that can help you toward your goal. As I am fond of asking my younger students, “how do you eat an elephant?” The answer is the same for any insurmountable challenge: “a little bit at a time.”