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Dear Cantor Matt,
Our son will be starting bar mitzvah lessons soon. We don’t want to lose sight of the real meaning of this day but we’re already overwhelmed with all of the preparation. So we would like to ask you: what do you think is the most important part of becoming bar mitzvah?
Let’s put the pieces together why don’t we? But before we begin, let me just say that the fact that you even thought to ask this type of question means that you and your son are sure to have a wonderful and meaningful experience.
Let’s look at a bunch of different things that a typical kid goes through when prepping for his big day in order to figure out what the big picture is.
One obvious possibility is the actual material that he will be learning. At the service, your son will likely be chanting a haftarah or Torah reading. He will probably be leading some or all of the service. Therefore, we might conclude that the most important part of the bar mitzvah is religious education.
But, let’s keep exploring.
A lot of kids also prepare a short speech or explanation of that week’s Torah portion or haftarah called a d’var Torah. This speech typically includes how the child’s life experience connects to the event that takes place in the text. Most likely, this will also be the first time your son will stand in front of a large crowd and deliver a speech, which will help him sharpen an important life skill. So could the real goal of becoming bar mitzvah be to break out of one’s comfort zone?
Let’s look at one last angle.
Many synagogues require their b’nei mitzvah students to perform some act of community service or take part in a mitzvah project as part of the whole process. This is meant to teach kids that going to services and learning some prayers are just one part of being a responsible, adult Jew. Kids are introduced to the concept of tikkun olam, or making the world a better place, which is one of the major responsibilities of the Jewish people. We might therefore think that the technical skills of singing certain prayers should take a back seat to the bigger picture of being a good Jew.
So, being that religious education, challenging oneself, and social goodwill are all critical aspects of becoming bar mitzvah, which is the most important?
Sure, all the items I listed are essential elements we want bar and bat mitzvah kids to learn, but to me, the most vital part of preparing to become bar mitzvah is the process.
From the very first lesson to standing behind the bimah during the service, a child deals with a lot of common life obstacles. How he copes with this journey will set the tone for future hurdles. And when he succeeds, there’s no better feeling than knowing that he can do anything with hard work and preparation.
The tunes of the trope may fade from memory as soon as the bar mitzvah party begins, but the triumph of accomplishment is a lifelong lesson.
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2013 Community News Group
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