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The Knowing I


Why do we become a bar mitzvah at adolescence? Because something dramatic happens to our minds at this time: A sort of awakening, a state of consciousness, a realization that "I exist."

The Jewish sages called it da'at--roughly translated as "knowledge" or "consciousness". Knowledge usually means knowledge about things outside of oneself. But this da'at is the knowledge of the one who is knowing. The "I."

Nothing is more frightening than this knowledge of "I"--yet nothing is more empowering. Without it, there is no accountability, no freedom, no way to take your life into your own hands. All of these things become possible only once you can look back at your own self and say, "Why did I do that and not this?" "Is this really what I want to do?" "Is this really who I want to be?" Only then can we call you a bar mitzvah.

No, it is not sudden. Gaining da'at is a gradual process. It seems closely related to the development of language. In fact, the Mishna tells us that one who lacks language--an untrained deaf-mute--is lacking also in da'at.

By the age of three, most children have enough da'at to start learning the difference between right and wrong. That is why three years old is the age a Jewish child traditionally begins his or her formal education. New discoveries of self continue at critical stages of childhood--and even later. It's not until twenty years of age, the sages determined, that most people develop a "mind of their own."

But no transformation in life can compare to that of adolescence. At that age, da'at unravels from its cocoon and a human being emerges. For that is a human being: A being that knows itself.

Knowing is everything. The world comes into being, the Kabbalists say, because G‑d knows it to be. If so, knowing is the fabric of which all things are made: Everything is knowing.

Electrons know the direction of the positive and negative poles of their electromagnetic field--if they did not, we would have no electricity in our homes. Every atom knows of every other atom in the universe--otherwise we would have no gravity.

Every living cell knows the code to its own reproduction and the pattern of its own survival. The bacteria that invade a host organism know just how many of them there are after multiplying within that host--so that all as one, at the moment they reach critical mass, they can release their toxins and weaken their host. Or else, they would suffer certain expulsion and bacterial illness would be unknown.

Spiders know the geometry of their webs. Beavers know the structure of their dams. Birds know the skyways of their migrations. Each animal knows its rituals of mating, grooming, hunting and being hunted, of life and death.

But none of them will sit and ponder its own ritual. The spider will never question its urge to spin, the birds will never discuss the wisdom of their migratory routes. The electrons will never strike a rebellion against their electromagnetic field.

The raven, the prophets tell us, is miserly with its young and the eagle is kind with its eaglets. But never will you find an assembly of crows discussing a gentler form of child rearing, or of eagles discussing "tough love."

Only one creature sits and ponders, "Should I be as a crow or as an eagle? A sloth or a beaver? Fat or thin? Weak or strong? Where is my life going to and what am I creating with it? Is life worth living? Is there a reason to be?"

And only on account of this pondering can we claim to stand at the top of the pyramid of all knowing things. For in every other playing field, there will be another creature to surpass us: in strength, in swiftness, in sharpness of senses, in beauty, in longevity--even in the wisdom of survival--we will find animals that render us fools.

Only in the knowledge of our own selves and the choice to become whatever we desire to become--in this we stand even beyond the angels. And that is the pinnacle to which we climb on the day we become bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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William John Meegan Syracuse, New York USA July 11, 2016

The tree of knowledge of good and evil: i.e. World of Opposites The edict of Yahweh Elohym forbidding Adam to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge (Da'at) of Good and Evil, in the second chapter of Genesis, is forbidding Adam from knowing (Ya-da) the world of opposites.

Whereas, the Tree of Life is not a tree symbolizing opposites; rather, it symbolizes a harmonious symbiotic relationship: omniscience.

If the biblical student studies the first chapter of Genesis he will see that the Tree of Life is codified, via sacred geometry, into the textual materials and a deep contemplative meditational analysis of the Tree of Live will illustrate exactly what I am talking about. See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's work Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Reply

Anonymous denver, co July 2, 2011

gentile Thank you. Reply

Marek Zielinski London, UK March 5, 2010

I am who I am. I'm special

I'm special.
In the entire world there is nobody like me.

Since the beginning of time,
there has never been another person like me.

Nobody has my smile.

Nobody has my eyes,
my nose, my hair, my hands, my voice.

I'm special.

Nobody anywhere has my taste for food,
or music, or art.

No-one sees things just as I do.
In all of time there has been
no-one who laughs like me,
no-one who cries like me.

And what makes me laugh and cry
will never provoke identical laughter and tears
from anybody else, ever...

I'm beginning to see that God made me special
for a special purpose.
He must have a job for me
that no-one else can do as well as I ...

Thom Shultz (exerpt) Reply

Morris Las Vegas April 23, 2017
in response to Marek Zielinski:

You have the right attitude . . . HaShem made us all different and gave us all, how small may it seem, a path to follow in our corporeal lives. No matter where you are on the spiritual scale, you will find your path. Hashem is always around you. Your "Yicheda" that spiritual light that we all carry around with us, whether you know it or not, rejoices whenever you perform Mitzvot and try to obtain more of Hashems realm. Be Blessed and may you see more of his realm. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman September 10, 2009

To Anonymous in West Palm Beach Alan Kay said that a genius is someone who became an adult without losing his child's mind. The child's mind is capable of learning very rapidly and of finding solutions that an adult would never think of. The child's innocence allows him or her to accept the truth wholeheartedly--what you might call "believe".

Yet, yes, this fault of the child is something the adult must discard--the sense that I can't do wrong, that I am only responsible for the good I do, but never for the bad. Yet, how many of us have left that behind?

As usual, we hold on to the bad, and leave the good behind. Reply

Anonymous West Palm Beach, FL September 10, 2009

Da-at When we become Bar Mitzvah--

This is when we are supposed to throw away our childish things-- The only thing that ALL children ,everywhere, do is "make believe" so, at 13 we are supposed tho throw away the word believe and stop blaming someone else for our actions and thoughts.

Do you agree or disagree?? Reply

Morris Las Vegas April 23, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Thirteen is a number. Common Sense will tell you, one thirteen year old is not equal to another. I have two girls, My eldest, in Medieval times, would have been married and running the Castle. My youngest was still a child doing teenage activities at 13. Do you really think, today that we have adult expectations on a 13 year old. But, discipline and responsibility of ones children must start somewhere. At thirteen we tell our kids - you are responsible for your selves. If they do something wrong, there should be consequences . . . . This is the meaning of 13 today. If your family is quasi religious, Your child will learn more about Judaism, if not, use your parental knowledge to point them in the right direction. Reply

Rocky Stone Tulsa, OK August 17, 2009

Interesting & beautiful words I am not sure a spider knows how many other spiders exist all over the world, I do not know how many humans exist. How do you conclude that every atom knows all the atoms that exist as for knowing which way to go... When a tree bends in the wind, I would say it knows nothing, external forces move it. As for disease, the little bugs are discussing nothing. At a certain time they matrue. By now. They would be saying, holy crap, last time a needle killled a ton of us, let's attack right away. I do not know if an earth worm is self aware. If I had their little body, I may be wiser than a sage... But external forces would stilll limit what I could do & humans in their great self awareness would think I way a dope. Maybe we are not smarter at all, we know nothing, it just makes us feel good to put it in writing & in a few hundred years, others are impressed. Life is precious & time fleeting. An electron is a speck & nothing more. But, what the heck, if it makes you feel good... Enjoy Reply

Rox (goy) November 9, 2006

Teacher Tzvi Freeman is among the most excellent of Torah teachers. Reply

Tzvi Freeman August 24, 2005

This was actually originally written for a small book to be given out at a Bar Mitzvah event in Switzerland--in German. Of course, there was a lot more material that went with it. You can contact me at if you would like to distribute the same (in English) at your son's bar mitzvah. Reply

Anonymous bala cynwyd, pa via August 23, 2005

DA'AT My son is becoming a Bar Mitzvah in a few weeks. When I read this article, Da'at The Knowing I, it became so clear. It was a voice that I can project to my family and friends and it is simple, clear, compelling and inspiring.

Are there any other written works that have to do with the same oncept as it relates to becoming a Bar Mitzvah. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE let me know. Reply

Avromie NY, NY August 16, 2005

Tzvi, you're my best writer. This was awesume. It was simple but deep. Reply