(The following is a version of the speech I gave at my son Isaac’s bar mitzvah last weekend. To illustrate the point before I began, I took off my high-heeled shoes and stood next to him in front of the congregation.)
This summer, Isaac passed a milestone he’d looked forward to for a long time. One day in August, after thirteen years of being the baby in the family, he was finally taller than someone. Of course, that someone was me.
“Being taller than me is no great accomplishment in life,” I told him. “Most people are.” He was still excited. He led me to the mirror to glory in the half-inch that set him forever above me. He posed next to me, turning me around to observe us from all different angles. No matter where we stood, he was still taller.
In a few minutes, though, his excitement ebbed, something wistful flowed. He turned from the mirror and looked that little fraction down at me, touching my head, my face, my shoulders.
“Mom,” he whispered, “you’re so small!”
“I know, Isaac. That’s not news to me. You just never noticed before because I was bigger than you.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. But you’re, like, really small!” He sounded worried. This giant to whom he had once looked to meet every need, who could fix toys and lift him up and drive to Florida and bake cakes and heal boo-boos and make Halloween costumes and protect him from monsters and solve nearly any problem he had, stood before him, revealed as nothing more than a tiny, fortyish lady. I never had the experience of growing taller than the people who raised me, but I could see in his reaction how scary it must be.
“I’m still the boss of you,” I reminded him. He snorted and agreed, but I could read the thought bubble over his head that said, “For now.”
That’s what it’s like to be a teenager. The omniscient, omnipotent beings known as parents and teachers, the adults who run your world, stand revealed behind the curtain: smaller, more human, more fragile than you thought possible. You know a few things they don’t now. You can do some things that they can’t. You can tell when they’re bluffing. It’s exciting and weird and terrifying. You gain a few inches and lose your moorings.
You look to your friends and are often disappointed there, too. You need something to rely on, something that will always be bigger than you. Something you can never reach the end of. Something that, unlike your disturbingly short, flawed, mortal parents, lasts forever.
For some people, the answer is simple: they rely on God, who is forever omnipotent, forever omniscient, and really big. But I know that, at the moment, God is not an idea you feel you can hold on to. That’s all right. You can always come back to it.
Here are three more.
One is knowledge. You were born curious about everything–animals, trucks, plants, fire, bugs, and all the fascinating people in your world. You asked questions with your hands and your voice before you could shape the words to ask. Lately, you can’t get enough of history. You come home from school every day brimming with fascinating information about the Romans and the Mongolians and the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. Your trip to Italy next summer will be an amazing revelation, and I’m only sorry I won’t be there to make those discoveries with you and to witness your joy.
The quest for knowledge will never let you down. There is no end to the books to read, the places to see, the questions to ask. It will always be bigger than you. But knowledge alone isn’t enough.
We seek meaning and wisdom, as well. You’ve been studying for a long time in preparation for today, and you’ve barely scratched the surface of the great cultural, intellectual, and spiritual traditions of Judaism, which not only has thousands of years of history, philosophy, and argument for you to explore, but a lot of good jokes and fantastically fattening food. Becoming a bar mitzvah means taking your seat at that table, ready to join a passionate conversation about meaning and purpose that began millennia before you were born and will continue long after you are gone.
And Judaism is only one of the world’s many wisdom traditions that can help you formulate your own philosophy. Your dad has a sign on the wall of his classroom with the question he wants his students to consider all year: “What is the good life?” It’s a question that takes more than a semester to answer. It takes a lifetime.
But the biggest of all these endless eternal things is the one that flows through you like your own blood, and that is love.
Isaac, you were made for love.
While some of us struggle hard to love the humans every day, it comes naturally to you. You love your friends, you love welcoming guests into our home, you love meeting new people, and you love a party. You love your family. You love little kids. And someday, I know you will be a loving husband and father.
Love is always bigger than you. It is always wiser than you. And it is always and forever the boss.
We are so proud of you, for the knowledge, wisdom and love in which you are already rich for your age.
May you continue, in every way, to grow.