“See G‑d has appointed Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur of the tribe of Judah.”
Chur, Betzalel’s grandfather, was a son of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. That would make Betzalel a great-grand-nephew of Moshe. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b) records that Betzalel was a mere 13 years old when he was appointed as master architect and designer for the Sanctuary. Imagine a little bar mitzvah boy telling the great Moshe how to build the Tabernacle! Remarkable, and regrettably, all too rare.
Any congregational rabbi will tell you that it is the exceptional young man who experiences a sense of true maturity at the time of his bar mitzvah. The average bar mitzvah is a failure. I don’t mean that the young man failed his test or didn’t perform adequately on the bima. Most parties are successful and lots of fun, too.
Bar mitzvahs are failures because once the gifts have been unwrapped, the cash deposited, and the balloons popped, what is left? Is there any lasting value to this year of study, of running to shul for lessons, of nerves and anxiety? The success of a bar mitzvah should really be judged by the sustainability of the experience and by the value added to a young man’s life.
Bar mitzvah is meant to be an initiation into Jewish life, but we’ve turned it into a graduation. A young man goes through the compulsory 12 months of drudgery and then wipes his brow and with a deep sense of relief says, “Thank G‑d, I’m outta here!”
It’s like the old story with the synagogue that was plagued by mice until the rabbi decided to give all the mice a bar mitzvah. They were never seen again. Or the rabbi who said he finally worked out what happened to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. They never really got lost, he said. They just had a bar mitzvah!
A generation ago, the Jewish historian Cecil Roth advocated that the age of bar mitzvah should be moved up to 17 or 18 in the hope that we might then be addressing a more mature young man and appealing to his rational mind to better appreciate the Jewish way of life he was being introduced to. After all, just because he’s reached puberty and biological maturity — the halachic measure of majority — doesn’t mean he is emotionally mature. Perhaps an 18-year-old would respond more wisely and actually be inspired by what Judaism has to offer.
While to this day nobody has acted on Roth’s suggestion, all agree that something must be done and that throughout most of the 20th century and now into the 21st, the bar mitzvah syndrome is one of Judaism’s most spectacular educational failures. Do we really think we can prepare 13-year-old boys or 12-year-old girls for the big issues of life? Can we teach Jewish philosophy to this age group? What is the meaning of life? Can one prove the existence of G‑d? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where was G‑d in Auschwitz? The only answer we’re giving them to all these questions is a singsong passage they must learn to parrot by rote. More often than not, they have no clue what they are singing about!
It’s not the young man’s fault. Nor is it the teacher’s fault. And far be it from me to blame the rabbi! It is the system that is doomed to failure unless an exceptional effort is made by all concerned that this bar mitzvah experience will be different. Do we really expect a boy of 13 to change his lifestyle on his own? Do we expect him to come home and share everything he’s learned and change his whole family and their lifestyles?
The average bar mitzvah fails because the average family doesn’t really want any dramatic change in their son’s life. Nor do they want him to come home from his lessons and start preaching to them. What must happen if bar mitzvahs are to enjoy any measure of long-term success is that parents sit down and give some serious thought to what they actually want from their son and for their son. Do they want a nice performance in shul, a clever speech, and a cool dinner dance? Then that’s what they will get. If, however, they sincerely desire a meaningful rite of passage and a mature sense of earnest acceptance of Jewish responsibilities, then they too — and indeed the whole family — will need to prepare themselves for meaningful change.
Realistically speaking, it might be more practical to aim for one new mitzvah for the young man. A daily commitment to tefillin by him is a basic traditional resolution. And a new mitzvah for the family — like coming to shul more regularly — might be a good start. Then we can hope that there will be some follow-through and lasting value to this bar mitzvah.
It must start long before the 12th year of a boy’s life, and it certainly cannot end after the party. Synagogues, too, must offer imaginative programming for teens that will captivate them and inspire them to keep coming back to shul. That way when they are more emotionally mature, they will be there to get those important answers to life’s questions.
On the positive side, many good things can come from the bar mitzvah experience. Setting goals, achieving them one by one, a schedule of hard work leading to recognizable achievements, and at the end of it all being rewarded for a yearlong effort — these are all valuable lessons for life.
Bar mitzvah is uniquely Jewish. Non-Jews don’t have any celebrations at the age of 13. Many non-Jewish kids clamor for their own equivalent party. Why should their Jewish friends have all the fun? In other cultures, 13 is actually an unlucky number. Caterers omit table number 13 at functions, hotel elevators mysteriously skip from the 12th floor to the 14th, and Friday the 13th is a disaster waiting to happen!
But in Judaism, 13 is special, and it is a milestone that can be made special if we address ourselves to it with intelligent forethought, creative programming, and a personalized approach. It is not the frills that will determine the success of our bar mitzvahs but the meaningful impression they make on a young man.
My father, in his book, From Shedlitz to Safety, recounts the incredible non-event his own bar mitzvah was back in pre-war Poland. He was already studying at a yeshiva boarding school away from home. “Shortly before my 13th birthday, I received a parcel from home. Inside were a pair of tefillin and a note from my father telling me to make sure I was called to the Torah for an aliyah for the occasion.” That was it. No invitation, no party, no photographs, no cash. But he was given the essential ingredients for a successful bar mitzvah: tefillin to bind himself to G‑d and an aliyah to learn from the Torah how to live. Thank G‑d; they stood him in good stead.
Many Jewish day schools today are introducing innovative ideas to make the experience meaningful, positive, and more successful in the long term. With imagination, confidence, and effort it can be done.
I end on a positive note with a personal anecdote. Some years ago, on a trip to New York, we paid a visit to a family member whose daughter had gotten married some months back. Since we were unable to attend the wedding and as she had just received delivery of the wedding video, it was assumed that we couldn’t wait to watch the whole wedding in the full, three-hour, unedited version! As you know, these recordings can become somewhat tedious, especially at the point where guests at the tables are invited to give greetings on camera. Most people repeat the identical clichéd messages of “Mazel tov,” “Lots of nachas,” and so on. It was becoming quite humdrum, and I confess to having begun to fidget uncomfortably.
Suddenly there appeared on the screen an old Jew with a long white beard and not a clue as to how one is meant to use a microphone. Shouting his message in Yiddish was none other than the venerable chassid Reb Berke Chein, a man who had endured much pain and sacrifice in Communist Russia and was only reunited with his family in his later years. He still wore his trademark black Russian cap; his eyes burned with love and zeal; his face was absolutely radiant. He was on a different planet from the one with the tired, hackneyed messages that preceded his on the video.
Said Reb Berke Chein: Change is a very difficult thing. The hardest thing to do in life is for people to change. There are, however, a few rare moments in life when there is a special window of opportunity for positive change. A wedding is one such time. A bar mitzvah is another. At these special moments, during these milestones of life, we can find a measure of strength and courage we don’t normally possess. Grasp this opportunity, Reb Berke told the bride and groom. For me, that was a rare moment in an otherwise routine wedding video.
His message brings us hope for bar mitzvahs too. Betzalel was an extraordinary young man inspired with G‑dly talents. While we cannot realistically expect that from every 13-year-old, we can look to the occasional successes and draw from their experience. If we apply ourselves, it can provide that special window of opportunity.
Whether today’s bar mitzvahs will be magic or tragic will depend on the will and determination of parents. Please G‑d, with their genuine commitment, coupled with good shul and school programs as well as inspired teachers, we will make the magic the Jewish people need to build our future.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.