(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...halomeid al m'nat l'lameid, learning in order to teach...
(Deuteronomy 17:19) ...l'ma'an yilmad l'yir'ah et adonai elohav...; ...so that [the king] will learn to be in awe of the Lord his God...
I write in praise of bar and bat mitzvah.
The ceremony that marks the transition of a Jewish child to the status of adulthood is a much-critiqued phenomenon in modern Jewish life. All of us smile bemusedly at the notion of a young person on the verge of puberty who cannot keep track of dirty socks suddenly becoming responsible for the maintenance of a three-thousand-year-old covenant with God. And books, movies and stand-up comedy routines have lampooned the process by which said young person acquires the necessary training to deliver a shaky approximation of religious leadership. But the purpose of this column is not to look at the obvious absurdities, but at the wonderful and profound meaning of this coming-of-age.
Bar mitzvah was not always the individual event into which is has evolved. It was simply a designation for the natural event of reaching a level of maturity. Perhaps it was an annual marker for all the boys born during a particular year. Perhaps it was a euphemism to note the appearance of physical signs of development. But by the Middle Ages, young men were marking the transition by being called to the Torah. And as society in general and Jewish society in particular became more focused on the individual and his achievements, more and more of those young men began acquiring the ability to chant the section of the Torah they were called to read.
Not a hundred years ago, as American Jews began to acknowledge the blessings of daughters as much as sons, similar celebrations greeted the passage of girl to woman. And not much more than a generation ago, girls as well as boys began to prepare to read from the Torah as well as from the prophetic writings.
I know that for many synagogue regulars, the participation of newly-minted adults in services is an exercise in frustration. No parent ever heard a child hit a sour note, but everyone else has had the experience. Yet, far from being put off by these young people becoming queen or king for a day, I appreciate that in the performance of the mitzvah of reading Torah, they have indeed emulated the kings of ancient Israel.
In this week's Torah portion, instructions are given to the Israelites about the duties of the king they will eventually anoint. There are rules and regulations about his wealth and power, as you might expect, but also a requirement that the king write in his own hand a Torah scroll and keep it with him all the days of his reign, in order, as the verse of choice says, to learn to be in awe of God.
It was not likely that the chosen king would have memorized the Torah, and not even certain he would have known how to write. But with the help of others, he would learn both the calligraphy and the text so that he would have his own scroll from which to read. Faced with the magnitude of the task of writing the hundreds of columns and the necessary focus on each and every word, the mere presence of the scroll word serve as a stimulus to learn to fear, love and respect God – to learn to be in awe. The king learned Torah in order to teach its lessons.
That is why the bar or bat mitzvah is like that ancient king. For a period of months – maybe more – the child is trained and rehearsed in the skill of chanting from the sacred text. We take a certain satisfaction when this student or that is so skilled and enthused that he or she agrees to prepare more readings as the years go on, but on the day of the celebration, even the child who will never again chant from a scroll has acquired Torah in the way this piece of the teaching commends – learning in order to teach. The doting parents, the mystified gentiles and the sometimes-weary regulars are all the beneficiaries of this singular mitzvah.
Every adult who survived bar or bat mitzvah has the day indelibly engraved on his or her soul. Likely, the moments that stand out as most memorable (aside from the party and opening the gifts, of course) are those moments when, trembling before God and the congregation, the child used the acquired skills to chant from the Bible, taught the reading to the assembled people and thus transformed into an adult. Not all of the Torah is acquired in that moment, but no other lesson is acquired so effectively.
How can you be halomeid al m'nat l'lameid? You have a student – your own child, a friend, an older relative, a stranger – who wants to learn something that you don't know either. Help that person learn by learning it yourself for no other reason than to teach it to another. Are you looking for a suggested subject? Try Torah.