September 25, 2013
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How to write a d’var Torah for an unpopular Torah portion

Leprosy, jealousy, and talking mules, oh my!

for The Brooklyn Paper

Most families don’t get much of a choice when it comes to what Torah portion their kid will get for his bar mitzvah.

It usually depends on when he turns 13 according to the Jewish calendar, and the temple will assign the proper date based on that. The student then, as part of the bar mitzvah preparation, has to somehow integrate the subject of that Torah portion into a d’var Torah, or a short speech delivered during the service.

It’s not a challenge certain weeks of the year, especially when families check the calendar and realize that their child’s Torah portion is the famous story about Noah, the Ten Commandments, or the splitting of the Red Sea. It is easy and enjoyable to write about one of these famous stories.

But what happens when you happen to land on one of the less known or downright strange stories?

Here are four of the more peculiar Torah portions (some better known than others) and some questions that a bar mitzvah kid might use as an opportunity to individualize otherwise unremarkable stories in order to make their d’var Torah more meaningful:

Parshat Tazria

What, you don’t like leprosy?

The Torah goes into excruciating detail about blisters, sores, and skin disease. Families live in fear that this will be the portion they get, and that their guests will lose their appetites before the party even begins. Yet, the underlying theme of this dermatological narrative is of a body going out of control and the steps that the Israelites took to get things back to normal.

How can you relate to this story?

• Have you or any member of your family ever dealt with illness?

• How did that make everyone feel?

• Can you imagine that a person who is sick might feel betrayed by his body?

Parshat Vayeshev

This Torah portion, and continuing on with the next two, we read the iconic narrative of Joseph and his brothers. It is a well-known story, but not always a particularly happy one. But I think it can be of special interest to bar mitzvah kids. After all, the underlying theme is that of sibling rivalry and a parent showing preference to one child.

How can you relate to this story?

Hopefully, no one ever tried to sell you to some wandering tribesmen. But…

• Have you ever felt like you get in trouble more often than your brother or sister?

• Was there a time when you thought that your siblings might be jealous of you?

• Has there ever been a time you have been jealous of your siblings?

Parshat Balak

Bar mitzvah families are not that familiar with this gem of a story because it is often read during the summer. But that’s a shame because this humorous story features a talking mule, an angel brandishing a sword, and a main character so clueless that he pretty much leaves God speechless.

The point of the story is that sometimes we simply refuse to see the most obvious things even when they’re right in front of our face.

How can you relate to this story?

• Was there a time when you struggled with a decision and then looked back later and realized that the answer was obvious?

• What happens when you make a decision to do something but everyone around you tells you it’s a bad idea?

Parshat Vayakhel

This might be the Torah’s most boring stretch of text. We read, column after numbing column, about the building of the ancient Tabernacle, the structure where the Israelites worshipped while wandering in the desert. No detail is spared — we read about each specific measurement, tool, and material. It would be like taking a complicated piece of furniture from IKEA and writing down in precise detail how to put it together. Yet, there must be some reason why this is included in the Torah.

How can you relate to this story?

• Is there anything in your life that you’re so interested in, that you could go on and on talking about it?

• Are there some things that you find so important that you would insist on learning about every detail? And why?

• Do we have any modern version of a tabernacle — perhaps school, your synagogue, or your house?

All you need to do is just a little bit of creative critical thinking. Finding an important connection to whatever Torah portion you get can be one of the strongest connections you can make to the bar mitzvah service.

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