September 17, 2012
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Embracing Jewish spirituality

Entering adulthood

for The Brooklyn Paper

The joy of a lifetime

“This won’t be just another party,” we tell ourselves. We spend time and money to make sure the bar or bat mitzvah we are hosting will be an event that stands apart from the other 40 simchas being celebrated that week.

But perhaps the greatest challenge is to make the day unforgettable not for the guests but for the real center of attention — the bat mitzvah girl or bar mitzvah boy. For many, the bar or bat mitzvah experience determines their attitude to Judaism. If the event is shallow and pretentious, they will see Judaism as shallow and pretentious. But if it is meaningful and inspiring, their Jewish identity will be reinforced and they will be proud of their heritage. What can we do to ensure that our children will be positively affected and transformed by the experience?

As for everything else, children look to their parents for guidance on how to view their bar or bat mitzvah. They take their cues from us, and our attitude will define theirs. By the parents taking time to understand what a bar or bat mitzvah really is, they can develop an approach that will highlight the uniqueness and power of their child’s special day.

How can a 12 or 13 year old be considered an adult?

Some bar mitzvah boys expect to wake up feeling different on the morning of their bar mitzvah. They run to the mirror to see if any sign of a whisker has appeared on their chin, or start talking to themselves to check if their voice cracks. But the change that happens on the bar mitzvah day is much more subtle than that. The maturity reached at age 13 is not one that allows you to buy alcohol or decide your own bedtime — it is a spiritual maturity.

As is well known, girls mature earlier than boys. The same applies spiritually; a girl becomes bat mitzvah at age 12. Again, there may be no apparent change in her appearance. The change is internal.

What do you mean by spiritual maturity?

The definition of spiritual maturity is the ability to experience the depth and complexity of life. Let’s explore what that means.

A child can only see the world in one way. If his parent forbids him to eat a chocolate, he says, “I hate you!” with venom. At that moment, he means it. You can’t rationalize with him by pointing out that you always buy him lollies and he will be able to have it after dinner and it is for his own good and you are his parent… These are meaningless words. There is only one reality for him: you didn’t let him have the chocolate so you are BAD. Of course, if you give in and allow him to have the chocolate, you are “the best parent in the world” and all is forgotten. For the child there are only extremes. In his yet under-developed mind, every situation is simple and one-sided, black or white. There are no shades of gray.

This is a reflection of the purity of childhood. Children experience pure and unadulterated happiness, all-consuming sadness, extreme anger, and uninhibited excitement. This is a necessary stage for them to develop as wholesome beings. Each of these emotions must find its independent place in the child’s identity before they can start to work together.

With maturity comes the ability to sense subtlety and nuance. Our minds expand to be able to appreciate that even though something seems painful, there is a deeper good. And the things that feel good are not always good for us. An adult can say, “Although I am upset at you, I still love you.” Or, “Although I want it, I know it’s wrong.” We can see beyond the surface. Life is no longer one-dimensional; it has a depth and a complexity of which children are blissfully unaware.

What suddenly happens at age 12 and 13?

The Kabbalah teaches that until age 13 for boys and 12 for girls, we are primarily conscious of our body and its needs. Our reality begins and ends with what we see in front of us, and we are preoccupied with the demands and appetites of our physical nature. Suddenly at a bar or bat mitzvah another voice is heard — the voice of our soul. The needs, yearnings, and feelings of our spiritual inner-self are allowed to emerge. We begin to seek meaning, fulfilment, connection, and inspiration. We meet a side to our personality that we never knew existed — a deeper side.

This is what makes us an adult in spiritual terms. We now have the tools to appreciate a multi-layered world because we ourselves are now multi-layered — we have an active body and an expressive soul. Until now, our character was one-sided and shallow; only the body had a say. From now on we can also see things through the eyes of our deeper self — our soul. Then the choice is ours — to continue to live superficially or to develop our spiritual awareness.

So if the child is now spiritually mature, what is the parents’ job?

Once we reach spiritual maturity we begin to make choices as to how we want to live our lives. The factor that most defines the type of life we will lead is our value system. It will influence who we marry, our career choices, and our attitude to every aspect of life. Much of this system is developed in the years following bar or bat mitzvah. The questions that accompany the onset of adolescence demand answers, and if we don’t provide them, popular society will.

Here’s where parents play a vital role. These newly matured souls seek nourishment from their elders. The bar or bat mitzvah experience must be presented not as an end to a long process of Hebrew lessons, but an initiation into a lifetime of spiritual discovery. Once it is over, start giving your child opportunities to express his or her soul. Suggest ways they can give of their time to help others, to volunteer for worthy causes — to use their fresh young energy positively. Discuss questions of morality with your child; bring up real issues such as G-d and the soul, the challenges of growing up, the pain and beauty of true love. Welcome your child into the world of living thoughtfully.

You don’t need to know all the answers. Share your own experiences. Find a book on Jewish values or Jewish wisdom, and set aside a time every week to read a short section and discuss it together with your child. Ask them how they think the ideals you read about can be applied practically. This can become a family custom and be seen as a post-bar or bat mitzvah privilege. I can think of no more powerful way to guide your child into adulthood.

When planning the bar or bat mitzvah, remember that the really important stuff begins after the fanfare has died down. People will forget who the caterer was a week after the event, and the table decorations will mostly be destroyed by the time the main course is served. But the values you pass down to your children are eternal. That is a gift that they will cherish every day of their lives — the gift of spiritual maturity.

— © 2010 Chabad.org. Reprinted with permission

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