A profile in courage

A profile in courage

On this Shabbat, the bar mitzvah really was 'a man'

The bar mitzvah boy at my shul this morning looked as if he’d been sent by central casting when a call went out for a young-looking one.

He wasn’t the kind of bar mitzvah boy who towers on the bimah, with a bass voice and five-o’clock shadow. He wasn’t even the kind who seems all newly grown arms and legs, cuffs even on a new shirt too short, voice breaking. He was one of the little ones, bright hair, bright eyes, high-voiced, bantam.

He was adorable.

He belted out the opening prayers when the Ark was opened, and I felt pure dismay. I have sat through so very many b’nai mitzvah that the thought of yet another one was dispiriting. (Curmudgeonhood eventually comes to us all.)

The Torah reading was one of those unappealing dermatological double parashiot, all about lesions and blood and nocturnal emissions and impurity. The older man who read it did so slowly and emphatically, as if trying to ensure that we would miss nothing.

I am sorry to be so shallow, but boredom lurked not very far ahead.

And then the bar mitzvah boy began to read.

He read oddly. Haltingly. He stopped every few words to jerk his head back awkwardly, his shining hair gleaming, and he made odd clicking noises as he jerked. Something was wrong.

He finished the Torah and chanted the maftir, followed by the haftarah, the prophetic reading. It was long. He ticked and clicked and the room, huge and full, went dead silent.

It was clear to us that he was suffering some kind of disability – Tourette’s, many of us whispered to each other, before we were unable to whisper at all – and that he was displaying more courage than most of us could imagine. As he continued to read, all of us sitting there drew together in a way that felt absolutely tangibly real, willing him to succeed. He provided the courage and the will and the drive, and it felt as if we came together to mirror it for him, to fashion a place where he could do this.

My shul is huge. It is an old building, urban, high-ceilinged, and there were hundreds of people there. There would have been no shame in the boy’s choosing to have his becoming a bar mitzvah celebrated somewhere else or some time else – many congregants chose Shabbat minchah/maariv/havdalah services because they are smaller and less terrifying.

In his d’var Torah, the bar mitzvah boy talked about his Tourette’s. It often makes him say things he doesn’t mean or make noises that he can’t control, he said, and he added that his parents tease him about the extraordinary amounts of energy that course through his body.

He talked about the parashah’s message, which could be taken to mean that his imperfect body would mean an imperfect soul. It doesn’t, he concluded. Like everyone else, he was made in God’s image.

When he was finished, people applauded. Applause is not allowed in my shul, and when visitors occasionally, misguidedly, start to clap, the rabbis (we have several) shush them immediately. Not this time.

Part of it was a simple release of tension. Hundreds of held breaths were released; hundreds of jaws allowed themselves to unclench, and at least dozens of eyes seemed suspiciously wet.

The public performance that is part of marking having become bar or bat mitzvah is meant to be a coming of age ceremony. It often involves putting a great deal of pressure on children and then rewarding them with the kind of adult party for which they are not ready, complete with sexualized clothing, deafening music, groaning tables of food, that often ends with the children reverting to childhood, acting out, melting down.

Instead, what we saw at shul last Shabbat was a young man making choices, taking chances, modeling courage, and imparting grace.

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