Responsible for the Commandments
SAN DIEGO–I usually offer a wan smile to anyone who tells me that I am the rabbi that “Bar Mitzvahed” them. It’s not that I am not happy to renew old acquaintances, it is because of their use of “Bar Mitzvah” as a verb. Bar Mitzvah is a noun, not a verb. Bar Mitzvah refers to the obligations of a child of thirteen to observe mitzvot. Bar Mitzvah literally means “responsible for the mitzvot.”
This responsibility is inherited automatically when a child reaches the age of thirteen, it has nothing to do with any action on my part. I do not wave a chumash over their head and say “Poof! You are now Bar Mitzvahed!” We always say that child becomes a Bar Mitzvah (responsible for the commandments) as opposed to becoming “Bar Mitzvahed.”
Parashat Mishpatim contains many mitzvot, including laws pertaining to commerce, murder, manslaughter, and theft. Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen notes that the Torah refers to one who is responsible for committing an evil deed as a “ba’al aveirah,” the master of a sin. He compares this term to the one we use for a child who is responsible for performing mitzvot, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Rabbi HaKohen writes that when someone becomes a “master” of something, it is out of choice. One can choose to be an honest person or a thief, one can choose to do good or do evil. The choice is completely in the hands of the individual.
The same is not the case for someone who becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah cannot run from their sacred obligation, but for the rest of their lives the obligation to perform mitzvot is in their hands. Whether or not one performs the mitzvot is a matter of choice but the obligation remains, regardless.
In other words, a Jew can decide whether or not to be a good human being, but regardless of that choice, the obligation to flee from evil and seek good never goes away.
Rabbi Rosenthal is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego