My bar mitzvah was Saturday morning, November 11, 1989. Some of you who read this blog are very familiar with what a bar mitzvah is; I’ll beg your patience for a few moments. I’m sure the rest of you have an idea of what a bar mitzvah is, but perhaps not the full significance.
The word bar means “son of” (bat means “daughter of,” which is why we use that for girls). Mitzvah, on the other hand, has two definitions. It means both “commandment” and “good deed.” The transition from boyhood to manhood, in terms of the Jewish faith, takes place when one becomes a “son of the commandment” – that is, a child becomes responsible for following the rules himself, rather than having his parents take responsibility for his actions.
In the Old Testament, there are 613 commandments to follow. 365 of them are thou shalt nots – they’re prohibitions on doing something (like killing and stealing). The other 248 are things you’re required to do (like honoring your parents and leaving a corner of your field unharvested for the poor of the community to take).
Growing up, in religious school, we are taught to do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah), like donating to charity and volunteering at nursing homes. We are taught that these are good deeds, but if we were to take a closer look at the language, we’d find out that this was just the stuff we’re supposed to do. They are good deeds. for sure, but they’re also commandments.
In other words, you don’t get an award for doing right by people. You just do right by people. If the core of the Bible really is “treat your neighbor as you would be treated,” it’s a good code to run by.
But things in 1989 weren’t all about doing the things you’re supposed to do for the people you’re supposed to take care of.
On June 4 of that year, my sister turned 7. Also on June 4, tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, China, effectively ending seven weeks of protests by people with a variety of different causes.
Those tanks rolled right over Chinese citizens, crushing them. Something on the order of 500 people died, with many more arrested. The world was changing. I was 12, and even I could smell it.
On November 9 of that year, while I was in the final preparations for my bar mitzvah, citizens were at it again, but this time they won: the Berlin Wall came down.
Two years later, I was in my maternal grandparents’ basement, listening to the new Walkman my paternal grandmother had given me (actually, she got one for each of the three of us; and she lived across the street from my maternal grandparents, so we always got to see them all in one trip), when I stumbled across the news that brought all the stuff from 1989 together: Moscow fell.
The world was changing – and now it had changed. And it was people who changed it, in spite of their governments, not with them.