The first time I officiated at a bar mitzvah was when I was the visiting rabbi at a young congregation in Virginia during my senior year of rabbinical school. I was a 27-year-old without children and not quite sure what to say to a 13-year-old Jewish teen. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was tirelessly trying to determine what advice I’d have for this yet-to-be-born child, let alone come up with some meaningful words of a wisdom for a teenager. I tried to channel what my own rabbi had said to countless bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls over the years as I sat in that congregation.
I don’t recall exactly what I said to that young man in Virginia, but it was likely a trite bar mitzvah charge in which I said he’s the future of the Jewish people, and I encouraged him to continue his Jewish education and the performance of God’s mitzvot (commandments) as he walks humbly in God’s presence… or something uber-rabbinic like that.
I reflected on that moment last week after seeing a question that came through one of the rabbi discussion groups to which I’m subscribed. A first-time congregational rabbi asked what other rabbis like to say when they have that special moment to speak personally to the bar or bat mitzvah toward the end of Shabbat services. Some rabbis chimed in that they try to focus on what a wonderful job the bat mitzvah did of preparing for the day and how well she performed. Other rabbis suggested praising the bar mitzvah for his mitzvah project and congratulating them for taking the time to perform this act of charity. These are all kind and meaningful sentiments to offer to these Jewish teens on the biggest day of their lives thus far, but the more I thought about it the more I considered that we rabbis should take a different approach to speaking to the bar and bat mitzvah teens who stand in front of us during what might be the most impressionable period in their lives.
As my oldest child (the one who was in the womb at the first bar mitzvah I officiated as a rabbi) continues to prepare for his own bar mitzvah early next year, I find myself thinking what advice I’d give to him on his own special day. I also think about what advice I’d want another rabbi to impart to him. More than just encouraging them to continue their Jewish education and to get involved in the youth group, what are the most impactful words a rabbi can offer to a bar or bat mitzvah in the 21st century?