If you’re having a bar or bat mitzvah, chances are you’ll have a Torah portion to chant all or part of. And there will be a haftarah reading from one of the books of the Prophets that relates to the Torah portion. The speech you give will be drawn from these texts — a different one is read each Shabbat, so that every Torah portion is at least sampled in the space of a year.
Your mission is to dig into what your portion says and try to figure out what it means to you.
Depending when your ceremony is in that yearly cycle will determine which Torah portion, or parshah in Hebrew, will be yours. And chances are that those multi-thousand-year-old verses won’t be like a pair of glasses or a video game — something that you can switch out when you get tired of it. It’ll be more like the house you grow up in.
“It’s your Torah portion,” says Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, who works with bar and bat mitzvah students. “It becomes your parshah until the day you die.”
Not all portions are created equal. The shortest one is Vayelech, with 30 verses. The longest is Naso. It has 176 verses.
And what’s in the parshah can vary. Some have lots of action: the creation of the world or the splitting of the Red Sea. Others contain a lot of human drama: The binding of Isaac or Korach’s rebellion.
Then there are the portions that read like what one person told Tablet.com resemble instructions for putting together a piece of IKEA furniture.
So what are the best and worst Torah portions to get? I asked area rabbis. Mostly they didn’t like the question, because everything in the Torah is “good.” Here’s how they responded:
Rabbi Charles Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg
Most challenging: Genesis 22, Parshat Vayera — the Akedah, or binding of Isaac. I have read this twice a year for 35 years. Every year, I notice new things and raise new questions, but I still don’t understand what this story is trying to teach us. Is unquestioning obedience a virtue in the face of a command which seems immoral?
Favorite: Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor, I Samuel 15:1-24. It’s also challenging, but less so because King Agag’s death is at least deserved. It raises the question of when a leader is to lead and when they should give in to popular desire. King Saul is a tragic figure who can’t acknowledge his own failures, but nevertheless wants to remain in power.
Rabbi Michael Holzman
Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Reston
Sorry to disappoint, but even Tazria has rich wisdom to offer. [The portion details the outbreak and treatment of a disease that might be called “spiritual leprosy.”]
I would say Ha’azinu is the hardest for kids, because the poetic imagery can get tough. [“They will sprout hair from famine, attacked by demons, excised by Meriri. I will incite the teeth of livestock upon them, with the venom of creatures that slither in the dust” Deuteronomy 32:24.]
But I’ve had kids struggle with something dramatic like Miketz. [“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it’” Genesis 41:15.]
Rabbanit Chava Evans
Director of Jewish Life, Bender JCC of Greater Washington
I love Parshat Vayera. It’s incredibly rich and weaves together so many themes: faith, charity, infertility, sexual safety, the covenant and on and on. My job is made easy when a text is so multifaceted — it allows me to choose the most prescient theme for that year.
I saw it through the different eyes of my very sensitive 7 year old this year. The story of eshet Lot [Lot’s wife] turning into a pillar of salt affected her deeply and she burst into tears. Through her eyes, it was horrific and cruel. So this year, as I learn with her, I am reassessing my feelings about many of my favorite stories.
Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde
Oseh Shalom, Laurel
Two elements make for an eminently drashable parshah: great stories or an abundance of relevant mitzvot. For great stories, I love Lech Lecha: the evocative opening words, Avram’s moral conflict of passing his wife off as his sister, Avram acting as a military chieftain, and the mystery of the “covenant between the pieces.”
Challenging to drash: I cast my vote with the masses and choose Tazria-Metzora. Yes, you can use the Torah’s focus on leprosy to talk about issues of inclusion and exclusion, perhaps healing as well. But the vast number of ritual details that have little practical relevance to current Jewish life make for tough going.
Fruchter says tough going isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “I love it when ritual pushes us out of our comfort zone,” she says. “What you do has to be 10 percent beyond what you’re comfortable with.”
Whether its leprosy, IKEA instructions, forbidden sexual relationships or any of the other seemingly boring or awkward things the Torah deals with, if it’s your Torah portion, it’ll grab hold of you, Fruchter says.
“The Torah will speak to you, no matter what parshah it is,” she says. “Whatever you are thinking about or grappling with, it will pop out from the parshah.”
And if that doesn’t work, she adds, you can move your bar or bat mitzvah to a week that has a Torah portion you like better.