“But is it a good Torah portion?” This is one of the many questions I receive in my role as the rabbi who assigns dates for kids to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah. Not only do families think about proximity to birthdate and family availability, but they do care about the content of the parasha — the weekly Torah portion. In fact, this time of year often is not popular, since many of the portions come from the Book of Leviticus and are highly technical, containing lots of details of the ancient sacrificial system and for some a collection of antiquated laws and regulations that no longer are operative. And I must admit that about 28 years ago, I was a Leviticus hater too.
My birthday falls in the middle of the winter, so when my parents considered a date for my bar mitzvah, looking for a time when my northern family could travel down south without worrying about snow, my parents opted to push off the large community celebration until the end of April. The Torah portion that my parents picked for me was one of the portions we read this week, Acharei Mot.
As a rule-abiding, generally amenable kid, I began learning my Torah reading diligently, all the while knowing that the portion I was studying focused primarily on the ancient rituals associated with Yom Kippur, meaning sacrificing animals. And guess what? At the time, I was a vegetarian and uncomfortable with eating animals. So when the time came to write my d’var torah, the speech for my bar mitzvah, I lobbied for an untraditional alternative. I wanted to speak about my Haftorah, the story of David and Jonathan.
The themes contained in the Haftorah jived with me better than the Torah portion. I was one of those people who looked at the so-called yucky parts and decided to leave the parasha alone.
Now, years later, I regret that decision.
Why the change of heart? Well, to begin, I now love that my bar mitzvah portion is read twice a year — once in the spring, and once on Yom Kippur. I appreciate that my parasha is special in that way. But more importantly, I now have come to see the Acharei Mot, Kedoshim, and many other portions in the Book of Leviticus are examples of not “throwing out the champagne with the cork.”
What do I mean by that? By looking just at the parts I didn’t like, I discounted the numerous other wonderful laws and lessons that can be drawn out from the Torah portion.
To be fair, reading many of the portions pertaining to animal sacrifice can be challenging for a meat-eater, let alone a vegetarian. The ancient rituals of sacrifice have not been practiced in two thousand years, and frankly they are quite gory. If you have ever watched how kosher slaughter is done you too might become a vegetarian, but that is another issue. However, to dismiss an entire parasha because of the animal sacrifices would be to miss some important mitzvot.
For example, at the beginning of the portion of Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double portion, we learn the oft-quoted and celebrated teaching that opens with these words: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” What a wonderful message! The next line continues “You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I am your God.” Sounds good, no?
The teachings continue from there, including the commandment to treat others with kindness, respect the elderly, and leave food for the needy. If you started reading Acharei Mot, saw the animal sacrifice section and said, “forget it, this portion isn’t for me!” you would miss out on some beautiful teachings.
Too often I find that many of us look at something and make spot judgments without trying it enough. Rather than judge a book by its cover, I propose that we read those more challenging parts and then focus on the other teachings that are more palatable. Or perhaps alternatively maybe we should challenge ourselves to wrestle with the difficult sections. Plenty of Jewish theologians and commentators over the centuries wrestled with the purpose of reading these detailed accounts of the sacrifices in a world that no longer used them.
To put it another way, my wife and I often joke about how hard it is to feed our 4-year-old daughter. If we put out one thing on the table that she doesn’t like, she almost instantly says she either isn’t hungry or wants something else to eat, not thinking about all the delicious dishes to come that she is sure to enjoy.
So, on this the 28th anniversary of the celebration of becoming a bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth El in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 29, 1995, I present to you this d’var Torah, challenging all of us to read the entire Torah portion, including the animal sacrifices from Leviticus. Don’t avoid them. They may not be what we enjoy, but there is so much else to follow that very much deserves our attention. Consider this the d’var Torah I should have given. I am proud to say I had a bar mitzvah parasha from Leviticus.