Parshas Vayishlach – Bar Mitzvah Blues

hate bar mitzvahs.

There, I said it. I know it sounds like a strange thing for a Rabbi to say, but I can’t help it. Despite the many meaningful bar mitzvahs I have experienced in my wonderful community, I can’t shake my visceral dislike for the contemporary connotation of the term bar mitzvah and for the way it is all too often celebrated. With excessive extravagance and meaningless themes, bar mitzvahs have sadly become a pathetic caricature. More often than not, the celebration has a great bar (place to get alcoholic beverages), but very little mitzvah (meaningful connection to Jewish tradition). In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between the two:  The more extravagant the bar, the less meaningful the mitzvah. And the same applies to bat mitzvahs, as well.

The entire concept of bar mitzvah has a somewhat vague and unusual source. The Talmud finds an early allusion to the concept of ushering in Jewish adulthood at age 13, in a not so well known episode in this week’s Torah reading.

In a story that you probably didn’t learn in Hebrew School, the Torah tells us that Yaakov’s daughter Dinah is kidnapped and violently assaulted by a prince from a neighboring town. When Dinah’s brothers Shimon and Levi hear about this event, they are exceedingly distressed.  They plot and carry out a plan to save Dinah, while at the same time taking violent revenge against the entire town, whose citizens they believe are complicit in the crime against their sister. When Yaakov hears about his children’s actions, he harshly criticizes them for their hotheaded behavior.

The Rabbis cite this story as a proof for 13 being the age of bar mitzvah. They calculate that Shimon and Levi were thirteen at the time of this episode, and point out that the Torah refers to them as adults. Based on this, they understand that in the eyes of Judaism, thirteen is the age of adulthood for boys.

Does this not seem strange? Of all the stories in the Torah, why is this one used? Do we really want maturity to be associated with the behavior of Shimon and Levi, behavior that brought anguish to their father, and that we would not want our children to emulate?

The answer would seem to lie in our understanding of the concept of maturity and adulthood. If you ask a teenager what it means to view oneself as a budding adult, the answer inevitably focuses on the new rightsthat he or she has, the new things that he or she can do. I can now drink, I can now vote, I can now drive, I can now do what I want. In Judaism, however, we view adulthood as a time of responsibility, a time of obligation. I now must take my responsibilities more seriously, must wake up for prayer services, am obligated to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah, be more conscious of the feelings of others, etc. One view looks for what I can now take from the world, the other looks at responsibilities to the world.

Shimon and Levi were the first young men to realize that they don’t have the option of sitting back and doing nothing. Their beloved sister was assaulted and kidnapped; they took the responsibility to save her. Sure, we criticize their tactics, even abhor them (although it should be noted that the city was immoral and decadent, and were implicitly supportive of the horrible crime), but the very act of taking responsibility to save their sister is very much a true sign of adulthood. Indeed, when challenged by their father for their actions, they did not back down, and basically responded  “Can a brother sit by and watch the ongoing degradation of a sister?”

Adult life is about taking responsibility and making decisions; sometimes we make good ones, sometimes very bad ones. But taking responsibility is what makes us alive. The real measure of maturity is not when we are lazing around at leisure, but when we take responsibly for tackling a challenge, and make the difficult decisions to stand up for and protect what is dear to us.

If our children learn this lesson, that indeed is something to celebrate.

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