From the Rabbi - August 2017 Print

Bulletin Article Edited Extract from Sermon given by Rabbi Charles Emanuel on the occasion of Mira Emanuel’s  Bat Mitzvah

What does bar or bat mitzvah really mean? There is a very interesting insight at the end of the Torah portion (Naso) which, while on the surface might seem completely unconnected, is actually very crucial to all of our individual Jewishness.

The end of the Torah portion tells us about the transport of the tabernacle by the tribe of Levy as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. Most of the tabernacle was transported on wagons but the family of Levy carrying the Holy Ark itself, was commanded to carry it on their shoulders 

Concerning this, Rabbi Morris Adler, a prominent 20th century American Conservative rabbi, wrote “we are told not only about a detail of transportation but …we are also being instructed [that]….when it comes to the very heart of religion, we must not try to find…a substitute for our own shoulders. We cannot transfer to anybody else or anything else the obligations that rest exclusively upon ourselves….”

And so it is for the bar and bat mitzvah. Up to now, their Judaism has been, for the most part, just that of their parents. But now, as the 13 year old begins his or her journey into Jewish adulthood, they will have to start to carry Judaism on their own shoulders. Like the Levites who carried the Holy Ark, the young adult needs to start to understand that Judaism can be a burden and a discipline, something that many people, especially teenagers, find difficult to accept. But if he or she seeks to carry a faith easily, shouldering no special tasks, making no distinctive sacrifices, the person will have a Judaism that is neither true nor helpful.  This is the real meaning of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, shouldering the burden as well as the joys of our Jewish tradition. 

What does it mean to shoulder this burden? The 18th century Jewish mystical rabbi the Baal Shem Tov once wrote concerning the beginning of the Amidah prayer, “Why do we say, ‘Our God and God of our Ancestors’? He argued that there are two sorts of persons who believe in God. The one believes because their faith has been handed down to them by their ancestors and their faith is strong. The other has arrived at faith by dint of searching thought. And this is the difference between the two: one has the advantage that their faith cannot be shaken no matter how many objections are raised to it for their faith is firm, because they have taken it over from their ancestors. But there is a flaw in it: it is a commandment given by human beings and it has been learned without thought or reasoning. The advantage of the second person is that they have reached their faith through their own power, through much searching and thinking. But their faith too has a flaw. It is easy to shake it by offering contrary evidence. But the person who combines both kinds of faith is invulnerable.  That is why we say ‘Our God’ because of our searching and ‘the God of our ancestors”, because of our tradition.”

This is the hope we have as a person becomes bar or bat mitzvah. They have taken upon themselves this responsibility. They have learned a great deal from their teachers and from their parents and also from the wonderful atmosphere of this very special congregation whose members individually and collectively demonstrate by their actions the highest of principles of Judaism. But when a person becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, they will have to decide for themselves what their Judaism will be. This is the responsibility of the bar or bat mitzvah and it is the responsibility of each and every adult Jew. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel