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My Son’s Bar Mitzvah: My 5 Big Mistakes

November 4, 2014 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Don’t sweat the details and make sure you focus on the meaning of the day.

My son’s bar mitzvah was beautiful and we all were so proud, but I realized I made some mistakes. Here are my five biggest blunders and what I’d do differently today.

1. Being detail-obsessed.

For me, it was the centerpieces on the tables during Shabbat lunch. There were plenty of details to organize, but for some reason I got hung up on the flowers. With gorgeous centerpieces, I was sure, the room where we were having Kiddush would look great – without them, I pictured it looking terrible.

As the weeks went by, I talked about the centerpieces constantly: everyone had good ideas, and I listened to them all. A friend and I arranged to buy flowers the day before the bar mitzvah from a wholesaler. I arrived at the wholesaler on Friday morning – only to be absolutely crushed. Something had happened to the shipment, and there were no flowers to buy, no gorgeous bouquets to arrange.

That night, our family and friends gathered for Shabbat dinner and a few lonely flowers I’d hastily purchased from a local supermarket adorned the tables. “It’s beautiful,” one relative said. “The room looks great,” said another. After months of planning and hours of debate, nobody cared.

I didn’t need to drive myself crazy making everything super-perfect. A nice meal with family and friends made the evening perfect.

2. Putting on a show.

A couple months before my son’s bar mitzvah, one of his teachers asked, “Why are you pushing him so hard?” My son was planning to do a lot during Shabbat services, and I was encouraging him every step of the way. Until his teacher pointed out my son was getting stressed. Perhaps my “encouragement” was more like relentless pressure instead.

A good friend who is a child psychologist once told me she advises parents to stop and ask themselves what is motivating them: are they trying to do what’s best for their children or for themselves?

Why was I pressuring my son so much? Was it to show off? As the stress mounted, I realized it certainly wasn’t for his benefit.

That teacher’s question was a turning point. My husband and I had a long talk with our son and scaled back some of our expectations for him. He still led a lot of the service at his bar mitzvah and showcased his knowledge and achievements, but with fewer expectations – and a lot less stress.

3. Forgetting what it’s all about.

We’ve all heard those stories of over the top bar and bat mitzvah parties – more “bar” than “mitzvah” – and of course, we tell ourselves, we’re not at all like that. We’d never lose sight of the meaning in planning an event for our kids.

But I nearly did. Once the service started, I found myself going over and over all the details for the luncheon to follow in my mind: instead of focusing on what was taking place right before my eyes, I was distracted by less important details.

It took a huge effort to redirect my attention and really concentrate on what was taking place right before my eyes. There was my son, leading the service, reading from the Torah. At the conclusion of the Torah service, my husband went up and recited a traditional bar mitzvah blessing over our son. I felt tears prickling my eyes as the enormity of what we were celebrating finally hit me: our son is now responsible for his own decisions and religious observance. He can read from the Torah, lead services, and act on behalf of the community. Moreover, at 13, the mystical sources explain that he receives the capacity to move away from being selfishly-focused and start thinking of others as well. It was an awesome moment, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it while thinking about seating arrangements or the finer points of our menu.

4. Letting the moment slip by.

A few months ago, we attended a nephew’s bar mitzvah, and I was struck by something his mother told him. “Look around you,” she said. “You’re surrounded by everyone you love at this instant. Don’t let the moment slip by.”

I thought of her words just before the Shabbat service ended at my own son’s bar mitzvah. I’d been so busy for days. Even as friends and family came into town for the weekend, I was somehow always too frazzled to stop and savor their presence. But now I stopped and turned around. My son had just done a breathtaking job leading the service, reading from the Torah, and delivering a beautiful d’var Torah, a bar mitzvah speech; I was so proud of his self assurance and mastery over the material it had taken him over a year to learn.

As I basked in the glow of that wonderful moment, I looked around and surveyed the packed shul -- our friends, our neighbors, our family, and members of our community filling every seat – and felt a happiness I’d never known before.

Now that the day has passed and the bar mitzvah is over, that’s the point in time I think of and hold on to: feeling so proud of my son, and so connected to those around us who had come to synagogue to celebrate with us - gazing into everyone’s face, appreciating their company, living – for one instance – fully in the wonderful moment.

5. Not consulting my son.

“What are we doing after Shabbat?”

My son’s question startled me. For months I’d been planning the perfect Shabbat celebrations to mark his bar mitzvah. I’d spoken with countless friends, talked for hours with people about food, drinks, invitations and other details – and had settled on what I thought of as the perfect celebration: a Shabbat morning service, followed by a tasteful lunch.

Now, I realized, in all my months of planning, I’d never thought to consult my son. When he was little, I used to plan birthday parties for him – magic themes, a Harry Potter party – and I loved the fact that whatever I decided on seemed to delight him. But this time things were different: at the moment when we were planning how to celebrate my son becoming a man, he – unsurprisingly – had his own strong opinions for a change.

“Since relatives and friends are planning to be with us,” my son patiently explained, “we should have a Malava Malka after Shabbat party too.” I found myself opening my mouth to argue – when I paused and took a good look at my son. He’s getting to be nearly as tall as I am now. I thought for a moment of all the work, the over a year of effort he’d put into preparing. It had often occurred to me during the year that he is outstripping me in his knowledge and learning in many areas. My lovely son is growing up.

Instead of arguing, I listened to this wise almost-adult. We planned the Malava Malka together. He really did know best. It was the highlight of the weekend.

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