The first Bar Mitzvah in the Torah can be found in this week’s Parsha. The Torah describes how the twin boys of the Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca went in different directions when they “grew up”:
“And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”
Rashi, the principle Bible commentator, comments that as long as Jacob and Esau were children, one could not determine by their actions who they really were. Once they reached the age of thirteen, however, Jacob went to the Beit Hamidrash - House of Study, while Esau gravitated towards houses of idol worship.
The question has been asked. Didn't Jacob attend the House of Study before his Bar Mitzvah? Does not our Oral tradition inform us that even before he was born, Jacob was naturally attracted to Houses of Study? Whenever his mother past a House of Study, Jacob wanted to leave his mother's womb to go there. Certainly, after he was born, Jacob would have desired to study Torah, not just on the day of his Bar Mitzvah?
One answer to this question lies in the fact that before his birth Jacob had the “urge” to go to a House of Study only when his mother past one. That suggests that when Jacob was in an environment of Torah, when he passed a House of Study, that was when he was drawn by its influence. Esau ,on the other hand, had the opposite inclination. According to our Sages, whenever his mother passed a house of Avodah Zarah-idolatry he had an urge to go there. In spite of Jacob and Esau’s proclivities before they reached the age of maturity, it was still not clear what each of them would choose if they would be in a neutral environment; if there was nothing to attract them to either place.
When they reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, however; when they became independent of their mother and her influence, this is when it became clear what was their real inclination in life. At this point, everyone knew that Esau really wanted no part of his parent’s legacy, not just because he might have been influenced by his environment, which, at that time was idolatrous and corrupt. Esau had assimilated his cultures mores and values into his own.
Similarly, Jacob chose to go to the Houses of Study not simply because he followed the example of his parents and was in a positive environment, but because it became his choice.
This is likely what Rashi meant when he writes "When they became thirteen years old, this one "separated" to the Houses of Study and the other “separated” to the Houses of Idolatry." What does Rashi mean when he says, this one "separated?" What did they separate from? Rashi should have simply said, "This one went etc." What does the word "separated" imply?
Rashi seems to be saying that as long as they were still "attached" to their environment, one did not know if their behavior was due to their own efforts and inclinations, or it was due to the influence from others. However, when they "separated," when they were no longer attached to their respective environments and sources of influence, nevertheless, “this one ‘separated’ to the Houses of Study and this one ‘separated’ to the House of Idolatry” — it was clear who they really were.
A Bar Mitzvah is not only when a child is considered mature enough to assume the obligations of an adult. After all, many children before the age of Bar Mitzvah fulfill many of the Mitzvot and carry out their obligations admirably. Why do they have to wait for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah to be considered an adult?
The answer is that a Bar Mitzvah is when all of his actions begin to count as his actions; when Mitzvot acquire their full force of holiness, because they are the Bar Mitzvah boy’s or the Bat Mitzvah girl’s own personal observances. Just as a Mitzvah without intent and feeling is not a complete Mitzvah, because it is missing its soul, so too, a Mitzvah performed by someone under Bar Mitzvah, where part of the motivation and intention comes from one's parents and environment, is not a complete Mitzvah.
Whatever is true about every individual is true about the Jewish people as a whole. Our sages say that Mitzvot we perform now are mere preparations for the Mitzvot we will do in the Messianic Age. Contrary to the myth that a Messianic Age will bring about a reduction of responsibility and will serve essentially as a universal “senior citizen” retirement experience as a reward for all of our good work, Judaism believes that Moshiach will bring more integrity to all of our observances. In our present state of exile, our Mitzvot are, by definition, incomplete.
Whatever we do now can thus be compared to the actions of a pre-Bar-Bat Mitzvah child, whose actions are deemed incomplete because they are not the independent expressions of that individual child, but are attributable to his parents, teachers, peers and the general environment. When Moshiach will take us out of exile, we will all celebrate our collective Bar and Bat Mitzvah, when our Judaism will blossom and our Mitzvot will be performed in the most complete and ideal way.
Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah can thus be said to be a sample of the future Redemption. At a Bar Mitzvah, it is customary for the father to recite the blessing, “Blessed is the One who relieved me of this liability,” referring to the child’s transition from dependence on his parents to spiritual independence. May we see, imminently, how our Father-in-Heaven recites the blessing that will relieve Him and all of us from the liability of exile.