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October 28, 2016
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Rites of Passage


Saturday, our friends' 13-year-old son celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, officially becoming a man.


He still can't legally buy beer, smoke, vote, or drive a car. But according to Jewish law, he is subject to all the rights and responsibilities of an adult male. The most important of these is being permitted to (or required to, depending on the size of the congregation) read from the Sefer Torah, the double-spindled scroll that contains the Tanach the Five Books of Moses which comprises the core of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.


Reading from the Torah is a tricky thing not only is it scribed without distinct vowels or punctuation, but it is cantillated each word sung to a specific note or flourish ("trop"), depending upon its position in a sentence, in a verse, and in the portion of the Torah that the person is reading. The Hebrew is archaic at best. There are prayers to be sung before and after, there are specific motions to be followed, and perhaps most telling for the newly-minted teenager the cantillation of the week's entire reading from Nevi'im, the Prophets (sometimes called "the Haftorah"), to a separate and distinct trop.


That's a whole lot of singing for a boy whose voice is on the verge of, or in the middle of, changing. This is why every time we attend a Bar Mitzvah, we wonder not just how well the child-man will handle the prayers, but also how well his voice will hold up. We wonder not just whether he will stumble over the well-rehearsed (if not completely memorized) parashah, but how well his early-teenaged sensibilities understand both the surface meaning of the scripts and how they apply to our lives as individuals and as a people. While it may not be the thirteen-year-old's first public performance, it may well be his first educational lecture, his first serious theological discourse "with the grown-ups".


In many Reform and Conservative congregtions, it is enough that the man-child understands the ritual, can say the prayers, and can thank the parents and teachers who brought him to this place. We were told that our friends' son whose parents belong to a Modern Orthodox congregation would not only do this, but also lead the entirety of the morning prayers, as well as give the d'var Torah the lesson based on the portion of the Torah that will be read, as well as the Haftorah reading that follows it. Quite an ambitious undertaking!


The ritual was a bit different from those I'd been to beforehand. Most of the time, the people called up for the honor of "reading" the Torah will say the prayers, kiss the scroll at the correct spot, and let the rabbi (or other designated adult) read for them. J. performed the role of reader for the first three men so honored including his grandfather and his uncle. He had the trop and the cadence, and read with a clear and tuneful voice. His father read for the remainder of the honored individuals, before passing it back down for the final portion, closing and replacing the Sefer Torah in the Ark where it is kept. At the end of the Haftorah reading, we women threw little organza bags of candy at J. from over the separating wall while everyone sang Mazel Tov (good luck, congratulations).


It wasn't until after all the prayers were finished that J. was called up to give what some congregations call "the Bar Mitzvah speech". Before the typical round of thank-yous, he expounded on a few sentences from the day's reading, explaining the structure of the verses and illustrating their meaning with examples from his personal life. While his delivery was somewhat rushed and he never looked up from his computer-printed discourse, it was something that showed a thirteen-year-old's thought and understanding. This was followed by the usual gifts from the congregation and sisterhood, public kiddush, and by-invitation lunch.


It was a pleasure to be able to celebrate a milestone in our friends' life. Mazel tov to the family and yasher koach to J.


Today's post is part of the annual No D-Day series, in which participants share aspects of their lives other that metabolic condition we all live with 24/7.

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