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.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, might be the one parsha that all parents will want their budding teens to keep in mind. It’s from this text that we’re reminded of the prohibition within Jewish law against getting a tattoo. Of course, since a lot of parents themselves might be sporting some ink, this might not be the most compelling argument. But you can give it a shot.
Last week’s parsha was all about holiness, or as I liked to characterize it, respect. It provided us will all sorts of examples of how we should treat other people, through business dealings and personal interactions. And now this week, we continue with that same concept, but this time we turn it inwards. The Torah portion deals with a theme that might be considered the most valuable thing a young person can learn — respect for oneself. And it helps if you view all of these instructions within the larger context of holiness and respect. Not surprisingly, this Torah portion in particular lists lots of forbidden activities, which has become somewhat standard procedure lately. In fact, it seems like the entire book of Leviticus is some strange ancient handbook on forbidden relationships (like incest — hardly something you’d be tempted with), things that people weren’t supposed to touch (like dead bodies, but don’t worry — modern day funeral directors are allowed to do their job), and disturbing dermatological diseases. Honestly, if I lived during that time, I might have just opted to stay in my tent and read all day so as not to worry about getting into any trouble.
The main idea behind these passages was to distinguish the Israelites from all of the tribes that they encountered in the desert.
For instance, other tribes engaged in child sacrifice, often as part of pagan festivals that were worse than any college frat party you could imagine. These ancient people also carved markings into their bodies as part of cult worship. In contrast, the Jews sacrificed animals, marked their celebrations with sacred and God-centered holidays, and were required to consider the body as something that was created in God’s image. So according to traditional Jewish law, it would be a desecration of God’s work to make permanent marks — that is, getting a tattoo — and a show of disrespect for yourself as well.
Of course, plenty of good, decent Jewish people certainly make the decision to get a tattoo, and contrary to Jewish urban legends, they will be able to live full Jewish lives and then be buried in Jewish cemeteries. So the message of this Torah portion may be a little more profound than merely stating that it’s a sin to get a tattoo. In fact, we find a compelling and powerful lesson that we hope that young teens will learn for themselves — that their bodies are holy, and that they are and will continue to be in complete charge of what happens to them. That means both on their outside skin, as well as what they choose to put in their bodies too. This Torah portion, Emor, lays the foundation for the way that all of us, especially kids of bar mitzvah age, should learn to respect ourselves.
Hopefully that’ll work till your kid turns 18.
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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