Bar Mitzva

On the day of a boy’s Bar Mitzva, his father says the blessing of baruch she-petaranu – which, in very colloquial English, is something like “good riddance.” Yet it seems that the son should be making this blessing, not the father, since, in practical terms, he continues to remain responsible for the boy for another five, or who knows how many more, years. Our Sages say (Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 63:12) that little children are punished for the sins of their parents, but when they turn into adults, they become independent and do not have to be punished anymore. Therefore, it is the child who should wholeheartedly say: Thank God, from now on I am no longer to be punished for my parents’ sins; now I can live on my own.

In some way, the relationship between a father and his Bar Mitzva boy can be likened to that between empires and colonies. For long periods, the big empires used to very much hold on to their colonies. Then it began to seem more and more natural for them to grant their colonies independence. The former colonies would celebrate their newly acquired independence; but the real joy would be that of the father-government. For in most cases, the big empire had by then become sick and tired of being responsible, and getting into all sorts of trouble, for those colonies. It was the empire that should have said baruch she-petaranu.

The same applies to a Bar Mitzva boy. On this day the boy becomes independent, so to speak; there are celebrations in his honor, he receives gifts, etc. But in truth, the real joy is that of the father and the mother, because the very notion that they have a son who is independent – albeit only theoretically – is very relieving. In many ways, the Bar Mitzva boy’s independence, like the independence of a newly created African state or a small island in the Pacific, is merely symbolic. This new small country has its own flag and hymn, and will possibly have its own stamps and souvenirs, but most of it is just for the sake of making a celebration. Nevertheless, the feeling that one is no longer all that deeply responsible is what creates in the parents the sense of joy that accompanies the baruch she-petaranu.

Not so for the boy. For in fact, the knowledge that one has become independent, that one is now on one’s own, should be an awesome, possibly even frightening experience. To be responsible for my own being is an entirely new life; it is a change that is really difficult to absorb. And yet, it is not an entirely terrifying experience; it also has its point of joy.

There were times when, in Israel, there was spontaneous joy, when people were happy because they were happy – not because they were told to be so, or because entertainment centers were created for them. One such occasion, which some of you may have had a share in, was right after the Six-Day War, when the way to the Western Wall was opened for the first time. I remember how people would walk up there, and when they would get near the wall, total strangers would greet each other happily, and hug and kiss. Everyone felt that something tremendous had happened.

Another such occasion that I remember was when I was a boy of about ten – the day of the declaration of the State, the 29th of November 1947. As I was falling asleep, I heard the UN vote from the neighbors’ radio (not everybody had a radio then): “Argentina – yes…. Uruguay – no,” and so on, in alphabetical order.

On the following morning I got up to go to school, as usual – and to my surprise saw that the streets were packed with people rejoicing, dancing. Nobody organized it, yet all of Jerusalem was beside itself with joy – for something that was not even proper independence; it was the dream of independence. That was a very strong experience, and I do not remember having seen such rejoicing since. This joy was shared by all; in spite of the fact that not only the grown-ups, but also every child, clearly knew that a war was sure to take place. But the feeling that from now on, I can somehow decide for myself – that was an extraordinary, unforgettable feeling.

A Bar Mitzva boy is, in a sense, in a similar situation. For him, too, the real wars are only beginning. Until now, what he experienced were only skirmishes – with mom and dad, siblings, schoolmates… but none of it was really serious. Now starts the time of the real wars. Now you have to sit in front of yourself and know that all the other battles are easy to win. But this war is going to last for who knows, perhaps seventy, perhaps eighty years, and in this war you may sometimes suffer all kinds of losses – but you can also win.

This important war is the “War of Independence.” It is the fight of a person who knows that he now has to be responsible for himself, to fight for his own entity and personality. There are so many things to fight for: first of all, to be a good human being is a tremendous job in itself; beyond that, you have to be a Jew; then, some of you may be Levites or Cohanim – all those yokes.

May I bless you, not that everything will go smoothly: nothing ever does; but that once you start these battles, then that your life-story will be not just a mere diary, but rather “the Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14). This is where the real battles are fought, and this is where the real victories are won.

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