Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
Thank goodness for a parsha like this week’s Kedoshim. After all the weeks of disgusting skin maladies, plague-ridden houses, and cutting-edge directions on proper animal sacrifices, this Torah portion now seems like a breath of fresh air.
The word “kedoshim” means “holiness,” but I would take that a step further and translate it as “respect.” Seen in that light, this Torah portion can be viewed as one of the most important and relevant passages that a bar or bat mitzvah kid could read all year.
Oh sure, you have to do a little bit of digging to find the meat of this particular portion, being that there’s a section about our cattle and livestock mating with the proper species and some passages that remind us not to engage in child sacrifice — which fortunately isn’t in vogue nowadays (regardless of how much kids talk back to their parents).
But then we stumble upon gems that form the very basis of ethical and respectful behavior:
• Conduct your business honestly.
• Respect your parents.
• Don’t deal falsely with each other.
• Pay your employees on time.
• Don’t bear a grudge against people and walk around angry.
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
You can compare the saga of the Israelite people to the story of a child growing up. For instance, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they couldn’t be responsible for themselves. They were told what to do, where to go, and when to eat. There were rules and they had to obey them.
But then they were freed from slavery and had to make their first tenuous steps out of their familiar territory and venture into the wilderness on their own. And because they had spent so much of their history as slaves, they didn’t know anything about ethical or moral behavior, or how to govern themselves.
God kept it simple for them by first telling them, “Here are just Ten Commandments to get you started. We’ll tackle the heavier stuff later on when you show you can follow the big picture items.”
Little by little, the Israelites, like middle-school kids becoming teenagers and b’nei mitzvah students, started to look at the world around them in a more mature fashion. It wasn’t just about taking care of their own needs and making themselves happy, like you would expect from young children, but also forming an awareness of what would benefit all the people around them.
“Don’t steal!” is a straightforward order, but doesn’t necessarily carry much of a message. However, “pay your employees on time” drives home the point that a person’s actions can affect other people and that you have to demonstrate respect for every person, regardless of their status or situation. This is exactly what b’nei mitzvah students are learning when they embark on tzedakah (charity) or community service projects.
This Torah portion conveys the most vital, basic, and significant message that every bar mitzvah kid should walk away with, and it can be summed up in five words: It’s not just about you.
Previous week’s parshas:
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
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