If you are like me, you have only heard or read about the Jewish custom of Bar Mitzvah. I had an intellectual knowledge of what it was all about – the becoming of an adult in the eyes of Jewish Community and an acceptance of the Jewish faith in a very public way – but I never had any first-hand experience with it. Well, that all changed when I recently attended my nephew Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah.
I often describe myself as a “church geek”. I like ritual and liturgy, not only of my own church, but of other churches. I like the history of the development of ritual and liturgy and to see how things change over the years. One of the first learning moments was to discover that Bar Mitzvah is not an event but a title; one is not “Bar Mitzvahed”, one is a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah is a title that means “Son of the Commandment” and is a person who hears and responds to the commandments.
When a Jewish male, or female in the case of a Bat Mitzvah, turns 13 he is considered old enough to understand and comprehend what is required of him in the commandments and is responsible for fulfilling them. He is also included as an adult in the religious life of the synagogue. Although the origins of the Bar Mitzvah are obscure, the present ritual emerged some time during the Middle Ages.
The Bar Mitzvah leads the community prayers, along with the Rabbi and the Cantor, and he will read, for the first time, from the Torah. Prior to Jacob reading from Torah it is taken from the Ark, located in the very center of the Synagogue and passed from generation to generation. We were blessed to have three generations of the family present. The Torah is then taken in procession, much like I carry the Gospel book through the sanctuary of our Church during the Divine Liturgy. The Torah is covered with various items, and needs to be “undressed” so it can be rolled out for reading. My parents – Jacob’s grandparents – had the honor of performing this ritual.
The particular Torah that was used has a history all its own. I am not sure of the exact history but the Torah is a survivor of the Holocaust and has been lovingly restored by the community for continued use. While Jacob was reading I could not help but think of the number of similar services in history, using this same Torah, and how hatred of a people led to this Torah being in our midst now. It served as a poignant reminder of how cruel humanity can be and how we need to be on guard so it never happens again!
Various family members were called up to assist Jacob in reading. They came forward to read blessings or a “Aliyah” prior to the reading of the passage selected. This is considered a great honor to be called upon for this purpose. The Bar Mitzvah then reads the selected passage from Torah and gives a little speech, the preparation of which takes much time and study. The lesson involves a teaching about the passage just read, and in Jacob’s case, a teaching about the Feast of Sukkoth that was presently being celebrated.
The Torah is then lifted and is “re-dressed” – this was my part, along with my brothers. So I am thinking, here is this historic Torah, not only that but a sacred object, we are being watched by the Rabbi, the Cantor, the president of the congregation, and the entire congregation, and they asked me to do this. All I could think of was “God, I hope I don’t screw this up!” But in the end we performed our task and it was such an honor to do so. The Congregation was so gracious and welcoming that I was at ease and was able to just worship and enjoy the moment.
I had often thought of this service as just reading a passage from Torah but it is much more than that. Bar Mitzvah is a celebration of Jewish heritage and culture and it is amazing to see how it all comes together. Knowing where we have been will help us to go where we are going. Our past helps to shape our future but, thankfully, it does not determine who we are. Knowledge of history will help us to avoid making the same mistakes and assists us in staying ever vigilant against hate. For me this service was about more than a person reading from Scripture. It was the passing on of scared traditions and rituals to the next generation not just as things that we do but as the life we should live.