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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


You may (or may not!) know that a few years ago, I took over mentoring our b'nei mitzvah. The practical reason for this was to deepen my relationship with our young people. New technology helped a great deal, allowing us to meet regularly without depending on busy parents to schlep them to yet another activity!

Embedded in my goal of strengthening our personal relationships was another objective. I wanted to infuse the B'Mitzvah (as many now call the celebration) with a purpose similar to its original intent. In traditional Judaism, a thirteen-year-old boy—twelve for girls—wakes up on their birthday to a new reality of obligation to the halachah, the legal system of Judaism. Due to the extensive public rituals required of them, a tradition emerged to highlight the boys' liturgical skills during a prayer service. This is how the ceremonial celebration came about. However, the term "bar mitzvah" refers not only to the celebration itself but also to the young man. He is called a "bar mitzvah," which literally means "son of the commandment," and idiomatically refers to a "mitzvah doer," with "mitzvah" signifying the collective commandments of God.


Our young people do not wake up on their twelfth or thirteenth birthdays to new realities of Jewish ritual requirements. But around that age, their cognitive, emotional, and social development is leading them to shape their morals and values.


Growing up in a largely secular Jewish environment, I was introduced to a more colloquial definition of the word mitzvah. For us, it wasn't about religious obligations like daily prayer or dietary laws. It was about doing good things, being a mensch. My grandparents never said to me, "Do me a mitzvah, Jeffrey, put on some tefillin." They said, "Do me a mitzvah, Jeffrey, and go help your grandmother stamp her fundraising envelopes."


This perspective differed from my rabbi's concept of mitzvah. While it included helping others, he felt that it did not sufficiently capture its essential ritual and theological components. A mitzvah, he taught, isn't only the performance of a good deed; it is the divine command that issues forth from the Torah on both the moral and ritual scale.


As a humanistic rabbi, I don't subscribe to that view and I don't teach it. I prefer the definition my grandparents, parents, and seemingly every secular and humanistic Jew I have ever known agreed upon: a mitzvah is doing good, doing right.


Considering that our young people are in the midst of their social and cognitive development, I wanted them to enter adolescence with the capacity to become humanistic Jewish "mitzvah doers." This calls for values education and clarification. Our starting point is a tool created by educators at the American Humanist Association called "The Ten Commitments."


In my next few commentaries, I'll explore some of these values in much the way I do with our young people. Where appropriate, I'll also take a closer look at the Jewish cultural cognates and parallels to these Ten Commitments. In the meantime, you can check them out for yourselves at this link.


Or just come to the congregation, where you'll find them prominently displayed in our lobby!


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