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16 - More Bar or More Mitzvah?

In this episode we continue our discussion on Jewish lifecycles and talk about the transition into adulthood.


Hey, everyone. I'm so glad that you're here. This is [inaudible 00:00:11], and this is 0%. I'm so grateful that you are taking some time to learn with us today. We've been talking about the growth mindsets in Judaism, and more specifically where we see them throughout the Jewish life cycle. Last week, we left off talking about the transition between childhood and adulthood, and that transition is marked in a life cycle event in Judaism known as the bar or bat mitzvah, which literally translates as the son or daughter of the mitzvah. And this is the lifecycle event that is marked in a young boy or girl's life as they transition from a child to an adult.
And I love the terminology we use to describe this life cycle event, the bar or bat mitzvah, the idea that a person can be the son or daughter of Mitzvot. Mitzvot are often translated as good deeds. And I think that is a inadequate description at best, perhaps a bad description, but I don't want to go that far. And I don't want to talk today about what a mitzvah actually is. In short, it's a way that we connect to either God ourselves or people around us. It's a means of connection, a means of building relationships. But in any event, when we talk about someone being the son or daughter of something, what we mean is that it is an integral part of who they are. Every human being on earth has a mother and a father. And even if they've never even met their biological parents, their parents, the people who gave them life are an integral part of who they are in a way that a person could never completely cut off or divorce themselves from that relationship.
A person will always be the son of the person who fathered them and the daughter of the person who gave birth to them, no matter what. That is something that is inseparable. It's something that you cannot separate from the identity of that person. Oftentimes we'd like to, but we can't. Look at that term in relation or in contrast to a different term we have in Judaism. When a person makes a mistake, they are known as a [inaudible 00:02:35], which means the owner of a mistake. What that means is I am not defined by the mistakes that I've made. I am not defined by those of [inaudible 00:02:46]. Quite the contrary, I am a [inaudible 00:02:50]. I'm the owner of that mistake. And the same way an airline can lose your luggage as they do often, our mistakes are like baggage.
They are things and items that I own, and therefore I can cut those things off. I can disconnect those things from who I am. I am not defined by the mistakes of my past. I might be a [inaudible 00:03:13]. I might own that mistake, but I'm just an owner of it. In the same way I can own something and I can get rid of it, I can choose to get rid of my mistakes. I can choose to let go of them and move past them beyond them. We'll bring this up again when we talk about the different holidays in Judaism, when we talk about Yom Kippur, but I like to contrast that term [inaudible 00:03:35] with the idea of a bar or bat mitzvah. When we say that a child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, what we're saying is in the words of CS Lewis, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You might have a body."
What we say to this young bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah boy or girl is you are essentially good. Deep down inside, you have a soul that is a piece of the infinite. And because of that, you are essentially good. You have this deep connection to what is right and what is good in this world. And you have the ability to make good choices with that soul. You are a bar mitzvah. You are a bat mitzvah. It is an integral part of who you are. You are defined by the mitzvot that you strive to achieve. Not by the mistakes you might have made. And you know what? In life, there's going to be lots of mistakes. That's what it means to be a human being. To be a human being means to make mistakes, to fall.
But as we've learned so far, falling is not a permanent condition. You can always get up. The righteous fall seven times. It's not despite the falling, it's because of the falling. And we look at this young child and we say, yes, there are going to be moment throughout your journey that you are going to fall, but you have the ability, you have everything you need deep down inside to get back up and to become even stronger as a result of your falling. Now, I use that term become a bar mitzvah or become a bat mitzvah as opposed to have a bar mitzvah, because it's not about marking the life cycle event. It happens whether or not you do anything, whether or not you get up in synagogue and read from the Torah, whether or not you have a party. None of those things make you a bar or bat mitzvah and not having those things does not take away from the fact that you become a bar or bat mitzvah.
It is a reality and something that happens to you. Unfortunately today, the bar mitzvah becomes more bar than it does mitzvah. It's really all about surviving [inaudible 00:05:56], just so that you can have a big party and get lots of presents. That is obviously not what this is about. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. What it essentially is, is a celebration of responsibility. It's celebrating the fact that now this young child is no longer a child. Now you are responsible for yourself and for the entire Jewish people. You are now a card carrying participatory member of the Jewish people. And with that comes the responsibility of all of the Mitzvot. With that comes the responsibility to support and defend and take care of the entire Jewish people. For a boy this takes place at 13. And for a girl, it takes place at 12. And I know a lot of people celebrate the bar and bat mitzvah for a boy and a girl at the age of 13 in order to make everyone the same.
And I know some of you are going to be offended by what I'm about to say, and I apologize in advance, but having your daughters bat mitzvah at the age of 13 is essentially telling your young daughters, I know that you are more mature than let's say your twin brother. And I know that Judaism tells us that you are ready to take on the mantle of responsibility to be an active member of the Jewish community. But because we want you to be the same as your brother, you have to wait another year. Number one, I don't think that's empowering to her as a human being. I don't think that's empowering to her as a young woman. And I think it's just simply wrong. Telling ourselves the lie that we are all the same, that boys and girls are the same, that everything is the same and everyone is the same does us such a disservice because we're not the same.
We develop differently. We develop at different times. That is true both spiritually. That is true emotionally. And that's true physically. I almost fell out of my chair. I was listening to a TedTalk and they were talking about the different development stages of the human brain. There are three primary parts of the brain. There's the neocortex, which is responsible for rational thinking. There's the limbic brain, which is responsible for the emotions. And then there's the reptilian brain, which is responsible for our instincts. It's fascinating, by the way, way before there was a brain scan or any ability to know the parts of the brain, Jewish sources.Talk about the human soul, having these three components, one responsible for intellect on the top, the middle responsible for the emotions. And the third is the part of our soul that's responsible for our urges, our desires, our human instincts.
And when we talk about mankind being an upright being as opposed to an animal, which is horizontal, what we mean is that a human being has the ability to put our brain, put our soul in the proper order in a way that our intellect rules over our emotions, which in turn rules over our drives. I had a teacher used to say, Hollywood wants to do the exact opposite. They want to cut off our head and put us upside down. They say, do what feels right. Do what you feel like doing. Follow those instincts. And what that does is it convinces our emotions to feel a certain way. And then we rationalize it afterwards. But Judaism teaches exactly the opposite. We have the ability to control the way we feel.
So these are the three parts of the brain. The reptilian brain, the instinctual brain is fully developed by months in utero. That means before the baby is born, the reptilian brain is completely developed. It's what demands instant comfort and satisfaction of all of our physical desires. That is not being developed. Then comes the limbic brain. The limbic system, which is located between our ears tries to satisfy emotional needs, like our need for attention and belonging. It's what's responsible for all of the things that we feel and then comes the neocortex. Now just 20 years ago, we thought that most of the brain growth happens between the ages of zero and five. Only now because of new advances in MRIs, which have shown us the function and structure of the brain in a way that we weren't able to see before, do we now understand that the brain continues to develop and grow throughout adolescence and into the 20s and even 30s?
What's fascinating though, is that right at the forehead is what's known as prefrontal cortex. That is the part of our brain, where we get our logic and problem solving and planning. It's the part of our brain that tells us, you know what? Maybe you shouldn't be doing the thing you're about to do. It's the part of our brain that helps us make good choices. This is the part where I almost fell off my chair. When do you think gray matter development is highest in the prefrontal cortex? When do you think that the frontal gray matter volume peaks? It peaks in boys around 13 years old and in girls on average around 12 years old. Are you kidding me? What that means is scientifically what we learn from modern brain research, what we learn from these incredible MRIs, but let's face it. If you have children, you probably see this yourself. Just watching your own children.
But now we have the brain research to prove it. What we learn is that boys are capable of starting not being able to fully make good choices. The prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed until we're 20 something, but we can start being responsible for the choices that we make in boys at 13 and in girls at 12. So who are we to say to the girls, I know that Judaism and science both tell us that you are fully capable of starting to make good choices, that you are fully capable of being responsible for the person you are to become. I know that Judaism and science tell us that you are ready to become a full fledged, active, participatory member of the Jewish people, but we want you to be exactly the same as your brother. So we're going to make you wait a year. It doesn't work like that.
At the age of 12, a girl becomes a bat mitzvah. It is an essential part of who she is, an essential part of her identity. And as soon as she is ready to take on that responsibility, it happens. You are a bat mitzvah. Deep down inside, you have that part of the divine inside of you. And with that, you can accomplish anything in the world.
The next life cycle I want to talk about is the development of a relationship, eventually leading to marriage. In Hebrew, there's no word for romance because essentially that concept from a Jewish perspective doesn't truly exist. The Jewish concept of love is very different from the secular Greek concept. The Greek concept of love is based on Cupid, Jack and Diana at a party one night and Cupid standing there in the corner. And he shoots Jack. He's shoots Diane. And all of a sudden the music starts playing and the camera pans around 360. And before you know, it's love at first sight. That you get struck by Cupid. And if you and your partner, your other object of your affection get struck by this same arrow, so now you fall in love. We even use that expression falling in love as if it's accidental, the same way you slip on a banana peel and you fall completely outside of your control.
The same is true in a relationship. You fell in love. It was completely not your choice. It was completely accidental. No wonder there's so much infidelity in relationships. If falling in love was completely outside of my control, it was something that I was forced to do, something that was completely accidental, then who's to say when I'm going to fall out of love or fall in love with someone else? If I take the control, I take the choice out of the equation, so then I'm completely off the hook. What can I do? Cupid shot me. I'm not trying to make light of infidelity. I understand that it's complicated. And there are a lot of factors involved, but you get my point. If our concept of love is so outside of our hands, it's something that we can't even begin to choose or control, so then that's true always. It's not just true in the current relationship with the current person I have happen to be with.
This concept of love is such an integral part of our definition of love that if you look at the Oxford American dictionary definition of love, it even mentions Cupid. It says that love is a personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid. They mention Cupid in the definition. The Jewish definition is very different. I was once on a panel of other rabbis and Jewish educators talking about the Jewish concept of love. It was a [inaudible 00:15:42] event, which is often called the Jewish Valentine's day. It's obviously much deeper than that and not the topic of our talk this week. And I remember the panelists before me said, well, you can't define love. It's just a feeling and you know what it is when you feel it. It's something that by definition is not definable.
And I took issue with that. And I said to the other panelists, well, of course you can define it. And if you can't define it, how do you ever know if you achieve that thing? And that's true with any important and deep concept. The reason why we don't have definitions for these things is because we never stop to think about them. Not because we can't define them, because we just haven't. And we use that excuse, that crutch often, because it's so much easier than actually stopping and thinking about the concepts that are most important. I mean, think about it. If we study math and science and English, and we study all these things formally, why wouldn't we study and try to define the things that are most important to us and the things that we want most out of life?
So right then and there, he turned to me and said, "Well, then what is the definition of love?" And I responded that love is the emotional pleasure a person feels when they see virtue in someone else. And they associate that person with those virtues. That's it. Love is a choice. It's a choice to see virtue in somebody else. For whatever reason, God created the world that we naturally are built to love our children, that we naturally see the virtue in our children in a way that nobody else really does, but we have to work to love our spouse. We have to work to constantly choose to see the virtue in this other person. There's an expression that we use, love is blind. That is the most ridiculous thing a person can ever say. [inaudible 00:17:40] Weinberg used to say, "Love is not blind. It's a magnifying glass." Think about it. Who loves you more than anyone on earth? Your parents. And who sees your faults more than anybody else? That's right. Your parents too. Love is not blind. Infatuation is blind. Join us next week as we learn the difference between the two.

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