Under the Black Hat: A Bar Mitzva Celebration

There was a bar mitzva in shul a few weeks ago. As is the custom, upon hearing the bar mitzva boy’s blessing over the Torah, the girls in shul, leaning over the mechitza, rifled – more like uzi-machine-gunned – toffees towards the bima. ‘Ouch’! – a little sister’s revenge – a strawberry toffee right in the bar mitzva boy’s face! Meanwhile, the rugby-scrum scramble for candy: there was such an excess of it – the frenzied stuffing of booty into plastic bags – that more than one of the older boys offered toffees to their dejected younger brothers. As order was restored, and the congregation prepared for the musaf prayer, I watched one of the older boys – also already bar mitzva, you could tell from his hat – working through a private dilemma: his bag of toffees was overflowing – too big for his pocket and too unwieldy to balance on the shtender in front of him. With the chazan intoning the kaddish directly preceding musaf, I watched the boy’s ‘eureka’ moment: he lifted his hat and plunked the bag of toffees on his head. By the time the congregation answered ‘amen,’ the boy’s hat was back in place, and he was shuckling away.

When a boy reaches bar mitzva, he becomes a bar da’as – a person of sound mind, responsible for his actions. Our sages tell us, ‘just as their faces are not alike, so their da’as is not alike.’ Da’as loosely translates as knowledge, but also means opinion, intelligence or even way of thinking. But what is this way of thinking – as distinctive as a person’s face – that makes a person responsible for his actions?

Da’as is one of those words – Freud writes about them in his essay on the ‘Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’ – that has different, sometimes even opposing, connotations. On the one side, da’as is an ability to make distinctions – that is, to see differences; on the other, da’as is the means to make connections. והאדם ידע את חוה – ‘And Adam knew Chava’: through knowledge one achieves the closest kind of connection. But to know another person, there first has to be recognition of the separateness of that person. In the earliest stages of child-development, there is no real recognition of the other – just the expansive self, fulfilling his needs in relationship to a world whose independence he cannot yet fully recognize. Many of us know someone who seems still to inhabit (or at least wants to inhabit!) such a world; being an adult, however, means recognizing that the world is not just an extension of the self.

The power of da’as to join together is not, however, only shown in relationship to the outside world: a bar da’as distinguishes, orders and connects with different parts of his internal world as well. A bar da’as first distinguishes: there are some demands of the internal world which he will not heed. Metaphors abound to describe the agent producing desires to which a bar da’as must say ‘no’: our sages call it the yetzer hara – or evil inclination; Freud calls it the id. But da’as contains its opposite as well: it is a means to distinguish, but is also a ×›×— החיבור – a capacity to connect. A bar mitzva boy wears tefillin on his head and arm to show the connection between the realms of thought and action. Though we may know a precociously intelligent eleven year old, he is not a bar da’as – because he has not yet developed that capacity – da’as – to link thought to action [for those who like to note invidious gender distinctions: da’as is reached by a boy at 13, a girl at 12]. The prophet says, ‘on that day you shall know – וידעת היום – and rest it on your heart that G-d is One in the heavens above and the earth below.’ G-d’s unity is affirmed in the heavens, and then on earth: through da’as, the abstract ideal rests on the heart: da’as – knowledge of the heart – is an act of internalization, bringing the knowledge of Torah down to earth.

‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d with all of your heart’ – בכל לבבך. Hashem is the name of G-d as unknowable, ein sof – a G-d beyond comprehension. He becomes ‘your G-d’ – a personal and beloved God through love – the worship of the heart. Through the doubling of the letter bes – ב – in the word for ‘your heart’ לבבך, the Torah tells us that we should serve G-d with both our good and evil inclinations. It is not, therefore, a one-way street: da’as not only connects the upper to the lower world, but the lower to the upper world as well. Only on the sixth day of the creation does G-d behold His handiwork and call it ‘very good’ – טוב מאד. Not just good, as in the other days of creation, but very good, because on it, our sages tell us, the evil inclination was created – without which a man would not marry, establish a household or engage in creative activity. A person develops, opens himself up to unknown future possibilities, through harnessing all of the resources of his personality – both of his inclinations, all of his heart. One who is insensitive to the demands of his inner world risks becoming an external shell – ‘a frozen ego.’

The greatest form of individuality does not come through intellect alone, but though unifying upper and lower worlds, integrating parts of the soul. The tzadik – our sages tell us – brings together heavens and earth; he does so through the powers of da’as. This is what makes a person an individual: ‘just like their faces are different, so is their da’as.’ The face is where the soul shows itself in the body; da’as is that internal link between body and soul. My da’as is as distinctive as my face, the point where my energies and desires engage with the ideal image of who I want to be – my way of bringing the Torah down to earth. It’s the work of a lifetime, starting with bar mitzva – for one thirteen year old, standing in prayer before G-d, a bag of toffees tucked safely under his hat.

Bill Kolbrenner blogs at http://openmindedtorah.blogspot.com