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
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.