Bar Mitzvah: The Spiritual Edge of Thirteen and Clueless

by Bob Schwartz

Mitzvah Magazine

Like many Jewish young people, I marked my thirteenth birthday by participating in a bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls). This is a traditional rite of passage, marking the time when you take on the privileges and responsibilities of being a full adult member of the community. There are services and celebrations, but as a religious matter, you don’t actually have to do anything or say anything to achieve this status. It just happens with time.

I attended religious school classes, before and after my bar mitzvah. I took part in the bar mitzvah services and celebration. I performed well at the services and enjoyed the celebration. Here’s the thing, speaking only for myself, and not for any others who went before or after me, including the most recent bar mitzvah of a family member I lovingly attended: I see now that I was pretty much religiously and spiritually clueless. This isn’t surprising, given that thirteen year olds are a bit—or a lot—clueless in general, no matter what they think at the moment.

This doesn’t mean that not understanding or thinking very deeply, if at all, about the spiritual particulars you are taught and that are recommended to you by earnest teachers and rabbis, or about the bigger picture of Judaism or other traditions, is a bad thing. You might well go from thirteen to 20 or 30 and not think often or ever about these. Some do, some don’t. You might actually go all the way to the very end without giving this much consideration. No blame.

But seeds are planted, and you never know what grows. Water, light, and fertilizer. I sent my beloved family member a bunch of books about Judaism, which may be read, now or eventually, sooner or later. They are a much more complete and interesting collection than the few I received when I was a bar mitzvah, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. I wasn’t interested when I was thirteen. That changed, a lot. My rabbi, my cantor, my congregation expected good things of me religiously. It took a few years to grow, and grow it did, although I’m not sure the fruit is exactly what they expected or thought would be good for Judaism or the community.

Me, I had no thoughts about stuff like that at the time. Being bar mitzvah, thirteen and clueless.