July 12, 2007
There is more going on than just a ceremony and a party
I have a confession to make.
I punched out my brother at his bar mitzvah. I'm not proud of it, but it's true.
I was sitting at a table with him and a couple of cousins, and he told this joke I didn't find very funny. I looked at this smirk on his face, and I just couldn't stand it. When he did it again, I lost it.
It was strange and very unlike me. It's not as if I was getting into fights all the time. I was a pretty mellow kid.
Now, compare that to a story a friend relayed to me recently. He told me about the first time his son put on tefillin. The bar mitzvah boy said that he felt as if God was standing right next to him. Deep stuff.
So while my brother got punched out at his bar mitzvah -- by me -- this other kid met God. Of course, some kids start getting into trouble at this age, while others really start to excel as students.
Why are people so prone to intense experiences at or around this right of passage? Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper going on?
Albert Einstein, no dummy himself, once asserted that God does not play dice with the universe. I think he was right.
Most rabbis, when talking or writing about b'nai mitzvah, mention becoming a grown-up, gaining a higher ability to discern between good and evil, becoming responsible for one's own actions, being counted in a minyan, etc. While all these things may be true technically, they are a little counterintuitive.
Why is a 12- or 13-year-old kid suddenly an adult? They sure don't look grown up; most aren't even done growing yet.
It turns out that all Jewish rules, holidays and mitzvahs are actually a reflection of a kabbalistic cosmic reality. For example, Shabbat corresponds to the day of the week most opportune for spiritual renewal, the time when all the energy for the next six days comes in.
Men put tefillin on their heads and left arms to influence their hearts and minds in a more positive direction. Most people probably assume that their soul is with them entirely at birth, but Kabbalah disagrees. In the 15th century, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as The Ari, explained how a person's neshama, or soul, comes down from heaven in stages, and that 12 or 13 is when one of the largest pieces finally comes down.
Sounds odd, I know. But check this out for yourself. Pick a memory from your childhood, any memory will do. Focus on it. Most people will find it kind of fuzzy and dreamlike.
Now, think of an event a few years later, during your teen years. Suddenly, those memories become as crisp as HD.
The Zohar, the principal kabbalistic text written in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that your soul is actually your intellect. Taken one step further, your brain is simply a processor that your soul uses, much like a computer. So, before b'nai mitzvah age, you are simply "not all there."
Ever had a conversation with a 5-year-old? Explains a lot, doesn't it?
So, once a person is "all there," it makes sense that he or she can be held accountable for his or her actions. And of course, this is also where the roller-coaster of teen years begins.
Soul newly complete, we are bombarded with new thoughts, intellect and desires. It's a wild, sometimes confusing ride.
But becoming responsible for one's actions is not the only change. We also become responsible for our tikkun, the rectification a person is supposed to go through during his life.
Rabbi Luria wrote about this in detail in his ground-breaking Shaar HaGilgulim (Gates of Reincarnation). Apparently, a person is responsible for fixing his character flaws, learning certain lessons and paying back debts from prior lifetimes.
Everyone has their own challenges in life regarding career, relationships, parents, substance abuse, you name it. According to Luria, all these challenges are heaven-sent to allow a person to iron themselves out, so to speak. And it all begins at b'nai mitzvah time.
Most Jews would probably be surprised to learn that reincarnation is a Jewish concept, but it is. In the Midrash and in the Zohar, it is explained that Abel was reincarnated into Noah, then later into Moses, and that the 10 martyrs killed by the Romans were being punished for slandering Israel when they "spied out the Land" in their incarnations as the tribal heads.
So, when a kid turns b'nai mitzvah age, there is a lot more going on than just a religious ceremony and a good party. According to the sources quoted, the ceremony is an acknowledgement of much deeper things taking place in one's soul, when one's true self is present for the first time, along with all the things that go along with that.
Of course, none of this excuses me for hitting my brother during his big moment. Stewart, if you're reading this, I really am sorry.
Matt Lipeles is a nice guy and doesn't hit anyone these days -- even if they really deserve it. He can be reached at email@example.com.