Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Bar Mitzvah Is Only The Beginning

My speech at my son's bar mitzvah this past Shabbos.

Let's talk about what a bar mitzvah is and what it's supposed to be. A bar mitzvah is when a boy turns into a man, when he becomes personally obligated in the mitzvos. But is he really a man? Would anyone suggest that a 13 year old is fully mature? Is that really something you'd expect a high school teacher, for example, to say? Compare a 17 year old and a 13 year old. The difference in maturity is vast. So what is this bar mitzvah?

Also, Rashi (Gen. 23:1) famously says about Sarah that when she died she was free of sin like a twenty year old because a Jew isn't punished for misdeeds until he is twenty. The commentators spend a lot of time on this idea and explain it differently but in general, someone over the age of thirteen is punished by a human court but you isn't punished by a divine court until the age of twenty. Whether punishment on those sins is delayed until the age of twenty to allow for teshuvah or somehow otherwise accounted for is a separate issue. Regardless, we are left with two stages -- thirteen and twenty. At thirteen you are obligated in mitzvos and twenty you become a fully responsible adult. I'd like to explain these two levels based on the following midrash.

It says in Koheles (4:13) "טוב ילד מסכן וחכם ממלך זקן וכסיל -- a poor child who is wise is better than an old, foolish king." Rashi quotes the Midrash that this child refers to the yetzer ha-tov, your inner desire to do good, and the old king is the yetzer ha-ra, your inclination to do bad. Why is the yetzer ha-ra called an old man and your yetzer ha-tov a young child? Because, says the midrash, you are born with a yetzer ha-ra and it stays with you for your whole life. The yetzer ha-tov only joins at the age of 13 and since it isn't with you for your full life it is called a child.

What does it mean that you are born with a yetzer ha-ra but only acquire a yetzer ha-tov when you reach your bar mitzvah? Certainly young children perform mitzvos and do good-natured acts of kindness. The Chovos Ha-Levavos explains that the yetzer ha-ra is your physical desires. A baby is born wanting to eat and sleep, and as you grow older your desires grow with you and expand well beyond their original parameters. In contrast to these physical desires is the yetzer ha-tov, your intellect. It is your job to recognize the negative consequences of your actions and rein in your desires, to understand what is good and what is bad and to choose properly.

This complex recognition of right and wrong, this abstract understanding, is something that also grows with you but at a different pace. A major stage of intellectual growth happens at approximately the age of thirteen. This is when you must and do reach a level of understanding of the consequences of your actions. But a person's appreciation of the abstract reasoning of religion, a comprehension of what is above you and what the future holds for you, is something that grows through the years. Thirteen is when your intellect reaches not just a level of maturity but an inflection point, the beginning of the great growth years of teenagehood, high school, yeshiva. These are years of exploration, growth and personal evolution. These are the years when you learn about the world and where you stand in it. Twenty is when you reach maturity. I won't say that it's all downhill from there but you've reached a plateau. At twenty, you're an adult with a stable understanding of right and wrong, of what and why.

As it turns out, a bar mitzvah isn't the time when you become an adult. It's the beginning of a wonderful period in which you grow into an adult. It's a time when you are ready to take on the responsibility of a Jew, to act and to learn like a Jew, and to grow in understanding and ability on your way to adulthood.

As much a pleasure as it has been to watch you grow as a child, to see the little boy with the big cheeks turn into a big boy with a big heart, we look forward to this wonderful time in your life when you grow into a knowledgeable and sensitive Jew. With God's help you will see much success in your learning and your personal growth.

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