September 13, 2013
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Bar mitzvah teens on Yom Kippur

The hunger game

for The Brooklyn Paper

Let’s play a quick game of word association. If I say “Yom Kippur,” what’s the first word that pops into your mind? I’ll bet you a set of High Holiday tickets to your favorite temple that you answered, “fasting.”

The act of fasting — going without any food or drink for an extended amount of time — has become synonymous with Yom Kippur. It’s taken on a life of its own to such a degree that people concentrate on undertaking and enduring the fast more than figuring out what it’s supposed to symbolize and accomplish. I’ve also found that kids and newly-minted bar and bat mitzvah teens especially tend to miss the point.

The Torah says that we’re supposed to “afflict our souls” when instructing us about Yom Kippur, but doesn’t go into any further detail. If I could rewrite the laws, I would have specifically written that the way to thoroughly “afflict our souls” would be to watch “Jersey Shore” for 24 hours. Yet, alas, the ancient rabbis decided to interpret the act of affliction in a way guaranteed to get the attention of every Jew — no eating!

They figured that anyone could sit in temple, open up a prayer book, and recite some words. But they made us demonstrate just how sincere we need to be by hitting us where it hurts — our stomachs.

On Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t think about anything else other than the job at hand— changing our ways, seeking forgiveness, and looking to improve ourselves. That can be hard to do when you’re busy figuring out what’s for lunch or getting ready to make dinner.

But remember that fasting is a tool to get ourselves in the proper mindset. The goal itself isn’t to fast, but rather it’s what helps us get where we want to be.

Each year, though, countless Jews of all ages ignore the larger meaning of Yom Kippur and simply set out to fast for the required 24 hours, figuring that when they finally get through that ordeal, they have met the challenge of Yom Kippur.

Here is where you can set the right tone for your bar mitzvah-aged kid: if he’s past bar mitzvah age, then he’s on the hook for fasting. Younger than that? He might try fasting a little or going without a certain meal. (Young kids shouldn’t fast the whole day.)

Make sure to couple the uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling of hunger with empathy for others who are less fortunate. Bar mitzvah-aged teens aren’t great at imagining a world outside of their own existences. But having to go to bed hungry one night can really send the message home that some other kids their age have to do that all the time. That might lead to a meaningful discussion about how to help alleviate poverty or provide for others in the Jewish or general community.

I think this is closer to what those ancient rabbis had in mind. One purpose of the Jewish holidays is to shake us up a bit and get us out of our routine. This is something that all members of your family can participate in, and can send a powerful message to bar and bat mitzvah kids as well.

And just for a laugh, we’re all feeling like Stains the dog below today:

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