Thursday, May 28, 2020

Why do bar mitzvah boys lein (read the weekly Torah portion on Shabbat)?

I mean, I know why they lein—because it’s a nice responsibility to take upon oneself as a young man reaches the age of manhood. (I would argue that 30 isn’t manhood these days, much less 13, but that’s a much larger discussion for another day.) And it’s a useful tool as one grows older.

But, why do they have to lein? It’s clearly not for every youngster, but the pressure to “keep up with the Schwartzes” is enormous.

I was in a large shul recently with a rich history of wonderful bar mitzvahs, and the Gabbai announced that no one from the audience should correct the bar mitzvah boy should any mistakes be made—that was to be the Gabbai’s function and only he would have that responsibility. Well, there’s a social commentary if I ever heard one, so thanks for giving me the idea for this column, Mr. Gabbai.

I have a few questions that bother me about our age-old practice that I’d like to ask, so please indulge me while I channel my inner Andy Rooney.

Why should a 13-year-old boy in our community have to commit to reading a whole parsha when even in the Chareidi world a simple aliyah often suffices?

Why should parents have to pay an additional $75 an hour for lessons for a whole year to a special tutor? (Dear friends of mine who teach bar mitzvah lessons: I love you, I really do, and will try to make it up to you in a few minutes.)

If parents want the young man to go the extra mile besides a celebratory aliyah, what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned Dvar torah? Maybe the haftorah too, as it has notes and dots to cushion the bar mitzvah boy’s experience. Why should the young man have to be subjected to calls and corrections from the congregation as we often witness?

Wouldn’t all the hours of preparation for something the young man might never again do be put to better use by committing to volunteering for Tomche Shabbos or visiting the elderly for a year?

Why should the young man, in many cases, need to sweat and have labored breathing, or bring a water bottle with him up to the Torah?

Why is a young man regularly complimented on his special day not with a congratulatory “Mazel tov on reaching the age of mitzvot” but rather “Mazel tov, you leined so beautifully”? Is that how we measure a young man, but how well he leined?

Why should those of our young men who may be slightly “tone disadvantaged” have to suffer quiet snickers and guffaws of friends?

Why should a young man on his bar mitzvah day be put in a position to be so nervous that “I almost vomited over the Torah,” according to one with whom I recently spoke?

And finally—and here’s my make-good to my friends who tutor bar mitzvah boys—why isn’t leining offered as an obligatory class in high school, where, as the young man matures, he can truly appreciate the incredible nuances of the Holy Language: the oohs and ahs of the trup, the hard and soft shvahs, the open and closed consonants? Wouldn’t they have a better grasp at age 16 in high school if taught by one of these experienced tutors?

My own two sons leined, and they both did so admirably. I know that people meant well when they gushed to them “you leined SO beautifully.” But each time I heard those words of adulation a knot turned in my stomach. I prayed that the well wishers would compliment them—all of them—on what fine young men they are, and what values they and their families carry. Honestly, the day is not about how well they leined—not by a longshot.

If we want to teach a 13-year-old how to be a real man, maybe there are more productive and less anxiety-producing ideas we can offer.

Just sayin’…. What was that? Oh – sorry. Just saying. I won’t swallow my words next time. Am I done now?

By Robert Katz