At what age do you grow up? This is the question I often pose to children when I speak at schools and the answer varies, depending on the age of the children and sometimes the age of the parents.
Jews know that we start growing up at 12 if we are female and 13 if we are male, corresponding approximately with the age of puberty. That is why we celebrate becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah at those ages.
But this is only the start. We don’t suddenly become an adult after hitting that age, any more than a child does in English law at 10 (age of criminal responsibility), 16 (age of consent), 17 (driving age) or 18 (the age in the UK of full civil rights).
We all know teenagers who have yet to grow up, and according to our rabbis, fully growing up is only achieved when a person can house, clothe and feed themselves.
So what’s this got to do with this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, which talks of the spies who bring back a false account of the land?
The Torah tells us that only those aged over 20 were punished (Numbers 14:29) and later described those younger than that age (Deuteronomy 1:39) as “children that . . . have no knowledge of good or evil.”
From this, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani taught in Rabbi Yonatan’s name that God does not punish for the actions people take in their first 20 years (Bavli, Shabbat 89b).
If only it could be so for the rest of our lives, but with age comes the heavier responsibility of our actions.
Rabbi Zvi Solomons is rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berkshire in Reading, jcob.org