We Jews are a funny people. We celebrate the weirdest things. Everyone’s heard of end-of-the-school-year parties, graduation parties, retirement parties. But who ever throws a get-to-work party?
Let me explain. Imagine that you have this dream job that’s the envy of all your friends. Then, one day you receive a summons to the boss’s office. The conversation goes something like this:
Boss: “Have a seat.”
You: “Thank you.”
Boss: “You’ve been here—what is it, twelve years now?”
You: “Yeah, it’s almost that already. You guys take such good care of me . . .”
Boss: “We pay you a comfortable living wage, plus full health benefits, free daycare and spa privileges, 31 days annual paid vacation . . .”
You: “Yes. I’m truly thankful.”
Boss: “And what are your duties and responsibilities?”
You: “Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’ve no duties or responsibilities.”
Boss: “You don’t even have to come to work, if you don’t want to.”
You: “Oh, but I do. Lots of times. It’s fun. I hang around the office, see how things are done. Sometimes they even let me help out. You’d be surprised at how much I’ve learned. And I participate in all the company banquets and outings. I wouldn’t miss those for anything . . .”
Boss: “Well, young lady, the party’s over.”
You: “W-what do you mean?”
Boss: “The party’s over. Here, take this manual. It spells out your obligations . . .”
You: “Uh, it’s sorta big and heavy. There must be almost a thousand pages in this book . . .”
Boss: “Actually, what you’re holding in your hand is a very basic summary. The rest is in the library downstairs . . .”
You: “Oh, I know the library. There are tens of thousands of volumes there . . .”
Boss: “Well, we’re doing important work here. And, starting tonight at sundown, you’re going to be expected to be doing your part. You’ll begin by following instructions, but to do your job right, you’ll also need to understand the whys and the hows behind those instructions . . . You’ve picked up quite a bit in your time here, but we have guys who’ve been here all their adult lives and are still learning. Anyway, congratulations and good luck. I’ll be watching your progress over the next 108 years . . .”
You: “. . . a hundred and eight years?”
Boss: “At least. Hopefully longer. Oh, by the way, don’t forget to pick up your new ID tag at the front office on your way out.”
After a conversation like that, would you run home and throw a party to celebrate? My daughter did. This week, she celebrated her bat mitzvah, the day that she became twelve years old.
A bat mitzvah is not an oversized birthday party. Leah’s had eleven of those already. This is very different. What she celebrated was the fact that on the eve of her twelfth birthday she became bat mitzvah—a person who under Torah law is commanded, obligated and responsible to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.
She celebrated the fact that the Boss had called her into the office and told her that the party was over. Until now, she’d received everything her heart desired from Above, and was not required to give anything in return. She was in learning mode—hanging around the office, picking up knowledge, getting a feel for how things are done. Now she’s a full-fledged employee, with a long list of duties and responsibilities. More than that—she’s been made a partner in the company, fully responsible to make the enterprise work.
She’s delighted. She threw a sumptuous party for her friends and family. We feasted, sang and danced, and celebrated the event as the happiest day of her life to date.
It may be that life as a free lunch has its attractions. Very quickly, though, it becomes tedious and meaningless, forcing the free luncher to work harder and harder at all the contrivances that pump artificial meaning into life. But the fun leaks out faster than the most vigorous pumper can pump, leaving one deflated and defeated.
That’s why we Jews don’t throw retirement parties. Instead, we celebrate the day that we’re handed the big fat book filled with duties and obligations, and the ID tag that reads “Fully Responsible Member.” Because we know that there is nothing more gratifying than being given a life that is truly our own.