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Unpopular stories from the Old Testament

The ‘ick’ factor

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

We just got our daughter’s bat mitzvah date from the temple. I checked the calendar and discovered that her Torah portion that week is all about leprosy and skin disease! That’s so disgusting. I’m going to be embarrassed to have my family and guests hear all about that, and I can’t imagine my daughter delivering a speech about that subject. It’s still a few years away. Should I make a fuss with the temple and have them change the date?

— Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

Before you do anything rash, take a moment and look at the bigger picture.

I agree with you — the text of that specific Torah portion does sound pretty nasty. The Torah describes, in painstaking detail, different kinds of skin diseases, complete with open and oozing sores. Now, if someone in the family happens to be a dermatologist, it may be a fascinating portion. But for the rest of us — yuck! I understand why you might be sorely tempted to look for another date.

But hold off on sending a blistering e-mail to the temple. You might very well have an opportunity here just hiding below the surface.

There are lots of Torah portions and stories that are popular and well-known. You might like to read about Noah’s ark or Joseph and his brothers. How about the splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments? They’ve made movies about that stuff! Which kid wouldn’t love getting those portions for her bat mitzvah?

But when you delve into these lesser-known areas of the Torah, such as the graphic description of leprosy, the mind-numbingly boring section on building the Tabernacle, or the uncomfortable prohibitions against forbidden sexual relationships, you’ve got the chance to be creative. These portions are just crying out for us modern Jews to find a connection to our own lives.

For instance, the passage on leprosy and skin disease could be viewed as a metaphor for keeping oneself holy and prepared to do mitzvot. The ancient Israelites saw these afflictions and were afraid their bodies were out of control, and tried to find remedies to take that control back. I would imagine that’s an emotion that would resonate strongly with a contemporary audience.

Furthermore, when you look at the subject of the Torah reading and decide it’s something that doesn’t appeal to you, you’re making this important day all about you. In the process, you’re eliminating a golden opportunity for your daughter, along with the rabbi or cantor, to search for connections or meaningful themes.

Instead of trying to start over from scratch, she might find herself really itching to dive into this reading and try learning something new. Isn’t that the real objective of your daughter’s bat mitzvah?

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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