Parashat Metzora Torah Reading: Leviticus 14:1-15:33
We are welcoming Aaron Tessier to our bimah as a bar mitzvah this Shabbat. It is a delight to have a simchah (joyous occasion) to celebrate with this wonderful family . . . it seems like no time at all since Aaron's older brother, Ethan, was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah although, I think, it's been 3 years!
You may have noticed that, in the above paragraph, I did not say that Aaron was "being bar-mitzvahed" this Shabbat, but rather that he is being welcomed to the bimah "as a bar mitzvah." I thought I'd take advantage of this family and community celebration to talk about this most central life-cycle moment in Jewish life.
In essence, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are the communal acknowledgement of a young Jew's coming of age in religious life. In the early rabbinic anthology of life wisdom, Pirkei Avot / Teachings of the Fathers, we read: (Chapter 5: Mishna 22)
"Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world."
There is a lot to discuss, and appreciate, in this early rabbinic (1st-2nd century CE) understanding of the capacities and qualities of humans at different stages of life. For our discussion of bar/bat mitzvah, we notice that the age of 13 is considered the time "for the obligation to observe mitzvot."
The common denominator of Jewish peoplehood is the "brit" the covenant with God. In traditional Judaism, our relationship to this covenant is expressed through the language of obligation . . . it is the responsibility of every Jewish person the age of 13 and older to do what he or she can to perpetuate this covenant with God.
Once young Jews reach this age of 13, and are now among those who take responsibility for maintaining this covenant with God, they can be called to the Torah, they can be counted in the minyan, and they can lead the community in worship . . . because they are now, officially, as invested in being part of the covenanted community of Jews as are their elders.
The bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are not rituals . . . that is, the moment of the "bar mitzvah" does not change the status of the individual. Rituals effect change in a person's life: two individuals become married at a wedding, a newborn is officially part of the covenanted community of Israel through the brit milah or simchat bat, Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, etc.
When a community comes together to celebrate a young Jewish person "reaching the age of mitzvot" we are not witnessing a transforming ritual, we are celebrating a significant birthday. With or without that bar mitzvah celebration, the young person is part of the community invested in perpetuating the covenant of Israel.
So this Shabbat, we aren't going to "bar mitzvah" Aaron . . . but we sure are going to celebrate the fact that Aaron has reached the age of bar mitzvah!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.