I remember being nervous. My mouth felt dry, and the palms of my hands were sticky with sweat. I had just completed a whole year of intensive training to prepare me for just these next few hours. Would I remember my speech, the only part I was to present in English? Would I stumble over any of the Torah reading I had studied so carefully?
My bar mitzvah—the ceremony that initiates a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy into the religious life of the Jewish community! I was about to become a son of commandment,” a man of duty toward God. Now I would be responsible to maintain the Torah and all its accompanying codes of oral tradition. The Talmud refers to bar mitzvah as a term implying accountability (Babe Mezia 96a). Many other Jewish sources also cite this event as a transition into the realm of responsibility, a heavy burden for one who is still in many ways a child. I was not aware then of the full import.
It was time to start, and the rabbi called me forward to lead the shacharith, the morning service. As I faced the congregation, all I saw was a frightening sea of faces before me. I imagined that they each had a clipboard and were waiting to evaluate my performance and turn in a point total to some board of judges. It wasn’t that I’d ever seen a tally sheet from any of my friends’ bar mitzvahs, nor that my orthodox synagogue was in the habit of refusing membership to anyone because he had “flunked” his bar mitzvah test. But I was greatly concerned with doing well in order to please everyone who had come to hear me.
Latecomers kept trickling in even as I began, and the 1200 seat sanctuary was filling up quickly. I dared look again into that sea of faces, and I recognized many of my friends. Even my Spanish teacher from school was there, along with the third baseman for the Kansas City Athletics. The reassuring smiles of these friends and my relatives helped. After a few minutes of canting the familiar melodies, my nervousness seemed to dissolve, and I felt much better. Soon the Torah service would begin.
The Torah scroll in its beautiful velvet cover was removed from the ark. I led the congregation in the Shemah, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Then I reverently carried the Torah around the sanctuary for all the people to see and kiss.
Back on the bimah, my Torah reading went well. I felt happy to have some of my relatives there with me, especially when it was my father’s turn to come up and recite one of the seven benedictions. I relaxed a bit more as I sang of Sarah’s death, and then of King David and his new bride; I chanted the musaf for the Sabbath. Then it was over, and I sat down.
Afterwards, over food and drink and merry-making, people came up to congratulate me and wish me great success in the future. I felt good, but the feelings were mostly because I was the guest of honor and because I was relieved that it was over and I had done so well.
Not until a few years later, while attending summer camp in Wisconsin, did I make a personal decision to “carry” the Law in my life even as I had carried that Torah scroll at my bar mitzvah. I purposed then to follow the ordinances of Moses and to observe all the orthodox traditions.…
I wanted to cease from sin and live the life of the Torah. What an impossible task! I returned home to Kansas City, really intending to fulfill my new commitments. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t rest in any of my accomplishments. There was always something not yet obeyed, something more to do.
Six years after my bar mitzvah, I read in the Scriptures of a twelve-year-old boy who stood in the Temple at Jerusalem and was examined by the religious leaders of His day. Many Bible scholars interpret this event as a bar mitzvah experience, pointing out that the boy had not yet attained the age of religious maturity; still, of His own accord, He joined the teachers of the law in great discourse. That is, He sought their authoritative acknowledgement of His awareness of religious responsibility. And evidently He received that acknowledgement, because the Scriptures record that all those who heard Him were amazed at His wisdom.
I also read more about that Boy, who as a grown man entered the synagogue at Nazareth and was called to the bimah to read the Haftorah of the day, probably Parsha Nitzavim. He opened to the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read from chapter 61:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”
He closed the scroll and sat down. Then He taught those assembled concerning that passage of messianic hope, saying, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” By this, He identified Himself to them as God’s Mashiach, the Anointed One.
I believed all that I read about that Anointed One in the Scriptures. I’m so grateful that God revealed to me the truth about this Jewish Messiah, the one who came in the form of a man to fulfill all of God’s ordinances. God didn’t leave me to flounder and fail in my new resolve and commitment to obey His every law. Jesus, the Messiah covers my failings with His righteousness. By His life, I live. Because I believe in Him, I no longer try to rest in my own accomplishments, but I rest in His work. He was the only Jew who ever perfectly fulfilled God’s law. I couldn’t do it, nor could anyone else. But in Him, God judges me to be a true son of commandment by faith.
Through my faith in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, I have been initiated into the greater religious community of God that includes all people of faith, both Jews and Gentiles who have placed their trust in Him. Because of this, I know that all those good wishes showered upon me at my bar mitzvah for a happy future have come to fruition. My future is assured because through the Messiah’s obedience, I am a son of obedience to God’s perfect commandments. And through Him, I have an eternal relationship with the God of my fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.