Bar Mitzvah & Bat Mitzvah: Setting Spiritual Goals

It is helpful to ask questions when forming spiritual goals for the bar/bat mitzvah. My student Ben Silver’s list includes the question: “Will I feel the presence of God when I read from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah?” Sara, his sister’s list has more questions: “Is there a proper blessing for your first kiss?” and “Do I have to learn all the words in services; is there a way to pray from your heart?” Ben has also included justice as a spiritual goal, he’s wondering “how can humanity learn to wage peace?” and Sara has listed “How can I help impoverished women and girls?” Most everyone in the family on their B Mitzvah team also listed in some way that they want a significant way to bring the memory of their Grandpa Daniel, who died this year, into the B-mitzvah plan.

Here's real-time notes from the session:

***Sara’s tutor explains that the traditional prayers are not intended to be the final word in prayer, but rather springboards or guides to finding and expressing the prayer of your heart. She could teach about this in tutoring sessions. What a perfect time to get past the translation of prayers and discover how to use them as doorways to meaning, connection, comfort, hope, and energy for living. Chapter IVand offer guidance for finding meaning in services.

***Ben and Sara’s dad writes that he sees Grandpa Daniel’s qualities in each of them and that he’d like to mention this when he comes up with their mom to give the parents’ blessing after the Torah reading at the B-mitzvah service. To allow yourself and others to invite the memory of a loved one in this way is in itself a mitzvah. This idea affects the spirit of those present in a significant way.

***Sara has brought an item from the local Jewish paper to the session. It describes a Federation study which documents the inability of single parents to afford to send their children to Jewish summer camp. It is a catch-22, the parent needs to work, the children need sunshine and play. What about Ben and Sara spearheading a family B-mitzvah project to fund a camp scholarship for such a youth and dedicating it in Grandpa Daniel’s name? To affect the spirit and quality of life of another through financial generosity, tzedakah, and in doing so to bring honor to the memory of a loved one is a graphic expression of their own spirituality.

***Sara’s mother did not have a bat mitzvah. As a girl she had dearly wanted to do so, but it was forbidden for a woman’s voice to be heard from the pulpit in the congregation where she was raised. She would like to talk about her feelings about this when she comes up to give the parents’ blessing after Sara reads and interprets the Torah. Raising awareness is an essential component of spiritual practice; awareness can lead to action.

***Sara’s grandmother imagines Sara, her mother and father, or the rabbi inviting those in the room who, like herself and Sara’s mother, were not allowed to read from the Torah scroll or to have a bat mitzvah to rise in their seats and raise their hands in blessing Sara upon achieving B-mitzvah.This both achieves Sara’s intellectual goal of pointing to changes in the empowerment of her gender in our times, and it adds the element of spiritual connection through the generations by physically having those affected rise and empowering them to share in giving a blessing. For Sara’s family the process of designing this blessing might become a memorable part of their process. Perhaps they might bless her to remember a woman’s right to chant and interpret Torah before the community cannot be taken for granted. Or to trust that voicing a woman’s perspective on Torah is important to the development of our people.

This last element draws a reaction to Ben who adds to the list:

***I would like to call up to the Torah for a blessing all the men in the room who have had a strong influence upon shaping my idea of what it is to live as a Jewish man today.  Traditional Judaism emphasized the role of the woman was to care for the children and the home and that has changed, today men are not always at work, at war or engrossed in study, they are also spending time raising and guiding the youth. I would like to give them a blessing for taking the time to be with us. Ben has grasped the power of both balance and blessing. Imagine how such words will affect the atmosphere of this B-mitzvah. 

***Again this family met with the rabbi to review their list and process. He heard Ben’s desire to experience the presence of G*d and began to teach him about Reb Nachman of Breslov’s belief in the importance of spending time offering the prayer of your heart while outdoors in nature. This type of potentially spiritual “experience” is very different than reading or talking “about” God.

***The tutor said she could provide Sara with a list of blessings for many occasions and encouraged her to compose a blessing for a first kiss. She also recommended the prayer book composed by Rabbi Marcia Falk, which includes her thoughts on the formulation of new blessings and also recommended that the family read “The Path of Blessing” by Rabbi Marcia Prager. Judaism emphasizes the practice of blessing an action or experience with focused attention, e.g. eating, putting on new clothes, witnessing a bolt of lightening, etc. Discovering the benefit of blessing practice is indeed a spiritual goal that helps one to stay awake and filled with wonder and awe for living. Such a practice provides an important lift for the human spirit and is a important life skill because the challenges of adulthood inevitably come to all of us.

***The tutor also recalled that the life of Dinah has become very interesting to contemporary commentators who commend her desire to “go out and see the daughters of the land,” whereas earlier teachers saw this as acute misbehavior and folly and believed her to have been raped by the very man she wished to marry.

Looking at this verse about Dina can also help Sara and Ben in their intellectual goal of showing their guests how very differently interpreters will relate to the meaning of a verse. This verse also relates to what Ben alludes to in his earlier mention of anxiety about public speaking. Ben’s changing voice is only one of the ways in which he is changing physically. And Sara has asked how to bless a first kiss! B-mitzvah students are rapidly maturing, and statistically proven to be likely to have intimate experiences far, far younger than their parents. The study of such a portion offers an opening for dialogue about seeing sexuality and one’s body as a place of lived holiness. This time of initiation is also one for carefully selecting mentors with whom our children can speak openly about matters of gender, physical safety and independence.

Now the family’s process has deepened and expanded and they are quite excited about the possibilities they are generating. 

¬Sara and Ben’s concerns for social change are able to be voiced and begin to take a practical form. The family is becoming passionate about potential mitzvah projects.

¬Those who will be missed so dearly are going to be remembered in a number of traditional and creative ways during the B-mitzvah.

¬Note how having given room and strategic support to emotional and intellectual concerns and interests that a new wave of curiosity and opportunity has come through about spiritual experience. Had Ben’s sharing his anxiety about public speaking been dismissed or suppressed earlier, the safety and respect needed during this process and among team members for discussion about other personal issues would have been damaged or lost.

¬Prayer and reading from the Torah are no longer viewed as arduous rites of task memorization; they are serving as resources for healing, connection, and personal growth.

¬The rapid physical changes adolescent B-mitzvah students are undergoing can be recognized in a context of holiness which allows for healthy discussion and mentoring.

¬This family is empowered and guided in ways that create meaningful involvement for everyone involved in the B-mitzvah. Judaism is opening up for them as a spiritual path.

Consider this: Congregations and religious schools have seriously limited finances, time and staff, and can’t offer all of the programs and resources that B-Mitzvah preparation ideally requires. If you are preparing this B-Mitzvah as a member of such a community, or are unaffiliated and know other families preparing “independent” B-Mitzvahs you might offer to help organize a B-Mitzvah family study and support group, dedicated to conducting a deeper and more profound B-Mitzvah process. The chapters and exercises in Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: How to Create Meaningful Rite of Passage were originally developed for just such groups and if you wish, our staff can consult or come out to lead an opening program.