By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
This is the B’nai Mitzvah edition of L’CHAIM Magazine, and by Divine Providence I am on a plane returning from an incredible Bar Mitzvah experience in Israel. Every trip to Israel is special; a Bar Mitzvah all the more so. But the recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem made us being there feel all the more powerful and significant.
We encountered an abundance of blessings and smiles from Israelis, thanking us for choosing to come now amidst the danger.
Looking back on it, why had we? Couldn’t we have stayed in the states, or at least in Tel Aviv? What’s so special about a Bar and Bat Mitzvah that Jewish people want to go to such great lengths to commemorate it, even in danger?
On Wednesday, Rosh Chodesh Chechvan, we traveled to a secluded section of the Western Wall to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah. The Torah is usually only taken out on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, but we also read the Torah on the day of the new month, known as “Rosh Chodesh.” In Hebrew, the same word is used for “month” and “new,” as this day represents newness, a promising fresh start to a new month and future.
The Bar Mitzvah boy donned a very old Tallit, once belonging to his grandfather who survived Auschwitz. The next day when we visited the incredible Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, we happened upon a well-known photo of a line of children, pails in hand, waiting for their ration of food in the Lodz Ghetto in 1942. Standing in the middle, facing the camera, was the Bar Mitzvah boy’s grandfather whose tallit he had just worn. The boy in the picture was 12 years old. Looking dejected and hungry, how could he have known that he would survive the ghetto and over three years in Auschwitz, ultimately having a grandson who, while wearing his very own tallit and surrounded by a large, loving family, would be celebrating his Bar Mitzvah by the Western Wall in Jerusalem?
Friday afternoon we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem. Taking a disconcerting detour (considering the situation), we were led through the Arab souk and past checkpoints, until finally reaching an open gateway with large arches beyond us. I could scarcely believe my eyes. In front of us was the entrance to the holy Temple Mount, where the Beit Hamikdash of King Solomon once stood. A great sense of awe came over me. Imagine what Jewish travelers felt years ago when ascending Mount Moriah toward the Temple Mount and seeing the majestic Temple, G-d’s home, a place the Talmud describes as “the place where Heaven and Earth kiss” (Baba Batra 74a). All of a sudden we were led into police headquarters overlooking the Western Wall. Challah and chocolates in hand, we passed around our gifts to grateful soldiers, truly thanking them for working so hard and sacrificing to keep all of us safe as we enjoyed all Jerusalem has to offer.
Descending a long spiral staircase down to the courtyard in front of the Western Wall, we joined soldiers and danced, bringing in Shabbat, celebrating life and our privilege to be part of the Jewish nation, no matter how hard it gets. Anything worthwhile is a struggle to achieve. As I left the circle and made my way to the wall, kissing its ancient stones, I felt a renewed inspiration, yearning and connection. This felt like my Bar Mitzvah as well; a renewed feeling of commitment as a Jew. A Bar Mitzvah merely kicks off a lifetime of new experiences and growth as a maturing adult. Our job as parents and educators is to make that first time of entry into spiritual adulthood as special and meaningful as possible. And even though we’ve had our B’nai Mitzvah already, let us never forget that this feeling of renewal can come at any moment if we let it. The B’nai Mitzvah is not the end but just the beginning of a lifetime of positive growth and renewal.