This past week, my son Chaim celebrated his 13th Hebrew birthday and became a bar mitzvah. My wife and I reveled in the moment that was shared by family and close friends.
Literally, the term bar mitzvah means “son of a mitzvah (commandment)” and is intended to convey that a young Jewish man who has come of age is now obligated in the fulfillment of divine commandments as an adult male. (The same holds true for young Jewish women when they reach the age of twelve.)
But this milestone is so much more than a simple transition from childhood to adulthood (the Torah offers no such concept as adolescence). In fact, it represents three very important transitions in a young person’s life that can serve as a lesson for us all.
- From unaccountable to accountable – In Jewish tradition, a child becomes accountable for his/her actions, in terms of divine retribution, only upon reaching adulthood. Until that point, any accountability lies with the child’s parents, who are obligated to properly raise him/her.
Application: We are often granted clemency when we first start out, with a new job, relationship, etc. We may even have others who stick their necks out in our defense and take responsibility for our miscues. A healthy expectation, though, is that we will begin to take on full responsibility for our actions as we grow, mature and learn from past mistakes.
- From learning to applying – The years leading up to the bar/bat mitzvah are years of learning and practicing, but not applying. Though we train our children to fulfill commandments from their youngest years, they do not possess the ability to fully apply their learning in ways that “count” in the fuller sense of the term until they reach adulthood.
Application: Even if you find yourself in a situation where your thoughts, opinions, etc. don’t “count” the way that you’d like for them to, keep practicing and learning so that you’re ready for your big day, whenever it comes.
- From insignificant to immediately impactful – Prior to the bar mitzvah, a child has limited significance in communal affairs. He cannot be counted for anything that requires a full or partial quorum, such as prayers or grace after meals. As soon as he becomes a bar mitzvah, however, he is a full-fledged, card carrying member of the broader community, of equal status in many respects as those many years his senior.
Application: We never know when our situation will pivot in a way that empowers us to do much more than we once could. Whether it’s a new leadership position or a new relationship, we can go from being relatively insignificant one day to a powerful, impactful person the next.