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Nasso 5782 - In Celebration of B'nei Mitzvah

June 10, 2022 - 11 Sivan, 5782

Between Lex’s b’nei mitzvah last week, Bella’s bat mitzvah this Shabbat, and all b’nei mitzvah in our past and future, this Jewish community has seen huge variation in what defines a b’nei mitzvah ceremony. Some of our students lead the entire service, some read Torah and a few prayers, and some complete an act of tzedakah, a creative mitzvah project. While each student teaches about something different, at the end of the day, they all have one similarity - they are b’nei mitzvah.

When someone outside of the Jewish community asks us what a bat mitzvah, a bar mitzvah, or b’nei mitzvah is, the first answer that comes to mind might be, “a big ceremony in which a thirteen-year-old leads a Shabbat service for the very first time.” However, quite literally, a bat, bar, or b’nei mitzvah is a daughter, son, or child of a commandment; the term refers to the new teenager themself, not the ceremony or even the party. In fact, all Jewish adults are b’nei mitzvah, children of a commandment. All of us have the responsibility to uphold God’s words, and all of us are responsible for the consequences should we ignore God’s words. Any of these mitzvah ceremonies, regardless of what specifically takes place, is a celebration of reaching the age at which this child is now responsible for taking mitzvot into her own hands.

What we now call a bar mitzvah ceremony was first recorded by thirteenth-century German Rabbi Mordekhai ben Hillel. In his community, bar mitzvah boys were celebrated with an aliyah to the Torah, a celebratory meal, and a chance to share words of Torah with the congregation - not so different from b’nei mitzvah today! In 1922, Judith Kaplan had the first historically recorded bat mitzvah ceremony, as she read Torah at her father’s New York Synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Here at Agudath Achim, in 1958, Darlene Yellen was our first publicly-recognized bat mitzvah.

The age of thirteen - twelve, for girls - derives from several Talmudic and Midrashic statements and principles. Throughout the Talmud, twelve or thirteen is considered the average age at which a child physically transitions to adulthood, and thus, is eligible for all marriage arrangements and responsible for certain deeds. 

Several other examples from contemporary Rabbinic texts highlight the number thirteen as the age of Jewish adulthood. For Yehudah ben Tema of Pirkei Avot (5:21):

At five years of age, the study of Scripture

At ten, the study of Mishnah

At thirteen, subject to the commandments…

…And so on until age 100. According to the modern Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, various Midrashim mention thirteen as the age when Abraham smashed his father’s idols, when Jacob and Esau went their separate ways, and when Bezalel achieved the artistry necessary to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Today, halakhically, the age of twelve or thirteen - not the ceremony - marks a Jew’s transition into responsibility for mitzvot. That age of twelve or thirteen, then, marks the point at which each Jewish person decides for herself her unique Jewish values, priorities, and modes of expression.

Whether or not we have had a b’nei mitzvah ceremony, every Jewish adult in this room is b’nei mitzvah. We not only decide what Judaism will look and feel like for us, but also, we live the consequences of our moral and ritual decisions every day. Now that we are over the age of twelve or thirteen, we can no longer place the blame for our mistakes on our parents or anyone else. We are at fault for our wrongdoings, and we are praiseworthy for our achievements. At the b’nei mitzvah ceremony, a teenager’s parents recite the blessing: Barukh she-p’tarani mei-onsho she-la-zeh - Blessed is the one who remits me from the discipline of this one. Although parents are civilly liable for their children’s deeds and misdeeds long after age twelve or thirteen, a new Jewish adult now has the opportunity to shape how she practices Judaism, and perhaps, to learn the hard way how to make tough decisions.

Just as b’nei mitzvah parents can and should still care about and influence their children’s Jewish deeds long after the ceremony, while each of us is responsible for our own deeds, we also have the ability to influence others’. Our actions - what we choose to order at a restaurant, how we treat our workers, and how we observe Shabbat - model Judaism for those who look up to us. When we push our personal Jewish boundaries and publicly try a new mitzvah, we offer inspiration to those who feel too feeble to try. As each of us holds different knowledge about and experience with Judaism, we each have a unique chance to teach others about facets of Judaism they may never have thought to explore. Like so much in Judaism, being a b’nei mitzvah is largely about finding a balance - the balance between growing our own Jewish observance and using our Jewish strengths to help others grow theirs.

Throughout the process of studying for a b’nei mitzvah ceremony, young adults experience the real effort that goes into living a life in service to God. As they learn and interpret the meaning of their Torah portion, they learn to find their own unique spin on Judaism and Jewish text. When they take on mitzvah projects, they learn both what specific populations they hold most dear and the power they have to influence the well-being of those in their community. Through their time on the bimah, b’nei mitzvah also demonstrate to us their readiness to step up for our Jewish community, whether through continued prayer leadership, volunteer time on committees, or through projects only they can imagine. Through their preparation in this building, they learn which of the many volunteer roles that keep this community going interests them most. When we watch a b’nei mitzvah service, we also gain the personal affirmation that if this young person can read from the Torah and can teach about their perspective on Judaism, we certainly can, too! Perhaps, after these two weekends, and in just a few months, after Sophia’s bat mitzvah, a few of us here will be inspired to try just one more of the many bimah roles Lex and Bella have demonstrated for us. Who knows - in the few years we have until Agudath Achim’s next thirteen-year-old bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, we may enjoy a few adult b’nei mitzvah ceremonies as well! Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784