Bar Mitzvah Speech

I have to speak at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah in a few weeks. Can you give me some suggestions what I should talk about?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Mazal tov on the event first of all and may your speech go well!

I’ll share with you what I feel is the most significant message of a Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah. Feel free to incorporate it into your speech in any way you’d like (but please attribute to In addition, it is typical to tie in the theme of your talk into something from the weekly Torah reading, especially the one the Bar Mitzvah boy read. I don’t know which week your nephew’s event is, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader!

There is an interesting principle in Jewish law regarding children. The Talmud states that children are not capable of “forgiving” (Baba Metziah 22b). This pertains primarily to matters of ownership. Jewish law considers a child incapable of parting with any property he owns, even items which the average person is not particular about. (The Talmud is discussing stray fruits which fall from an orchard.) Likewise, he is not considered capable of forgiving wrongs done to him.

A well-known example of this is on Sukkot, when we take the four species (arba minim). On the first day of Sukkot (or the first two days in the Diaspora), the four species must belong to the person who is performing the mitzvah. And this creates a problem if we want to give our set to our younger children to fulfill the mitzvah. We can give them our set, making it theirs, but they are not considered capable of giving it back to us. Once something belongs to them, Jewish law assumes they will not be willing to part with it.

The reason for this is clear. Children do not want to share their toys. They are inherently selfish creatures. They think exclusively about themselves and their own comfort and enjoyment. Children begin life as entirely selfish beings, not being able to think of anything beyond their own needs and wants. And it takes many years for them to develop a sense of the other – to care about others and to put their needs before their own.

The Sages teach us that when a child becomes Bar Mitzvah his “good inclination” (yetzer tov) is born (Avot d’Rav Natan 16) – as opposed to his “evil inclination” (yetzer hara) which enters a person at birth (Talmud Sanhedrin 91b). Until Bar Mitzvah, for the most part a child can only think about himself. You can train him to act ethically and altruistically, but most often only due to the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. He can behave if he feels he will get something out of it.

After Bar Mitzvah, however, a young adult can begin to actually look beyond himself. He can begin to value other human beings – and be willing to help them and care for them for their sake, not just his own. A Bar Mitzvah boy can therefore “forgive” – willingly part with his own property or his needs for the sake of someone else. (Of course this is a gradual process, which for some begins much younger, while for others only barely begins at 13.)

And this is what we celebrate at a Bar Mitzvah. When a young man reaches Bar Mitzvah he becomes obligated in observing the mitzvot. The idea is not simply that he’s bigger now and able to work harder, and so God lays more upon him. What actually happens is that he can now care about someone else – and if so, he can care about and begin a relationship with God.

The commandments of the Torah are not just chores we must do in order to earn reward in the World to Come. They are means of expressing our love for God and building a relationship with Him, one which He will surely reciprocate in kind. God waits until we are old enough to care for someone outside ourselves. When we reach that state, He invites us into a relationship with Him.

Before we are old enough to care about others, God would not command us to observe the Torah. A person who cares only for himself and is forced to serve another will not come closer to him. He will just resent him: He only cares about himself and he’s being forced to serve someone else. Mitzvot would not bring such a person closer to God. They would just drive him away.

But when a person can think beyond himself, he can begin a true relationship with God. He can learn to love God and want to serve Him and make Him happy – and as in any healthy relationship God will likewise love and do for him. Of course relationships are hard work, and a part of us would always prefer to take it easy and only think about ourselves. But there is nothing as fulfilling and rewarding as growing outside ourselves and building a true relationship with someone we love. God waits until we reach the stage in life when we can. And then He invites us to become something greater.

Mazal tov again!

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