When you are 13, everything is a) boring or b) mortifying. Conveniently, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the perfect crystalline opportunity for both these emotions! Everyone is looking at you, and you’re discoursing upon leprosy, masturbation, menstruation, or endless, dreary lists of building materials. Nightmare.
Back when I became a Bat Mitzvah, girls in my Conservative shul were not allowed to read Torah. I read the haftarah, B’shalakh, which did not suck. It’s about a brilliant woman judge who lounges under a tree telling everyone what to do. This was relevant to my interests. When God tells the judge— Deborah—to order the (very hot, in my head canon) General Barak to go into battle, he says he’ll only go if she comes too. They go into battle and kick ass, but the evil general Sisera of Hazor (which sounds so Lord-of-the-Rings-y) escapes and hides in the tent of Yael, the wife of one of Sisera’s allies. He shows up all sweaty from escaping and asks for water and she gives him some nice warm milk and he falls asleep. And she grabs a tent pin and pounds it through his skull. And then she calls in Barak and is all, “I made you a thing.” And then Barak and Deborah sing a song.
So that was great.
By the time my own daughters were becoming Bat Mitzvah, Torah reading was open to everyone! Josie’s portion was Lech-Lecha, which means “go forth” and is a good metaphor for adolescence and independence. Maxie’s Bat Mitzvah will God willing be this fall, and her portion is Noah, another nifty one from a narrative perspective. Sure, there’s that moment of Noah’s sons uncovering his nakedness, which, no, ew, but otherwise the parasha provides opportunities to muse about environmentalism, the rainbow as a symbol of LGBT rights, the universality of flood/destruction/renewal myths in a zillion different cultures—lots of intriguing stuff.
It could have been so much worse. I asked a bunch of Tableteers and smart Facebook Jews about what they’d consider the most abysmal Torah portion, and compiled the top 5 contenders. But first, let me say that all Torah portions can spark interesting ideas, hold possibilities for enlightenment, and provide an opportunity to wrestle with texts that make us uncomfortable. Amen, selah. It would still suck to enter Jewish adulthood by talking endlessly about semen in front of all your camp friends.
Vayekhel: The most boring Torah portion ever. (Fight me.) As Mosaic Magazine noted, “Not only does it record, in painstaking detail, the making of the tabernacle in the desert, its accoutrements, and the priestly vestments, it does so for the second time. Almost all of the information can be found in the prior readings of T’rumah and T’tsaveh.” Another writer compared Vayekhel to describing how to put together a piece of IKEA furniture. Noted a Tablet staffer who had Vayekhel as his Bar Mitzvah parasha, “It is a portion so bereft of any narrative interest or metaphorical significance that even the greatest Jewish medieval commentators fall silent for pages, unable to kick their brains into any semblance of scholastic interpretative activity. It was like being imprisoned in a dark cell for a year with water dripping on my head.”
Metzorah: Penile discharge! So much penile discharge! Also, if you have non-Jewish school friends, this portion does not exactly make Jews sound like normal, healthy citizens of the modern world. “When the lamb of guilt offering has been slaughtered, the priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the ridge of the right ear of the one being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. The priest shall then pour some of the oil into the palm of his own left hand, and with the finger of his right hand the priest shall sprinkle some of the oil that is in the palm of his left hand seven times…” And then you have to be all, “No, no, we don’t do that anymore! Because our Holy Temple was destroyed! Have an hors d’oeuvre!”
Acharei Mot: Because what teen doesn’t enjoy pondering parental nakedness? So much uncovering. And you have some of that “lying down with a man as with a woman stuff,” plus some bestiality. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.
Kedoshim: FOUNTAINS OF BLOOD. It’s like a David Cronenberg movie with more vaginas. “And a man who lies with a woman who has a flow, and he uncovers her nakedness, he has bared her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from the midst of their people…I am the Lord, your God.” You sure are.
Bamidbar: HEY, EVERYBODY, IT’S A CENSUS! WHAT’S MORE EXCITING THAN A CENSUS? “The standard of the division of Judah, troop by troop. Chieftain of the Judites: Nahshon son of Amminadab. His troop, as enrolled: 74,600. Camping next to it: The tribe of Issachar. Chieftain of the Issacharites: Nethanel son of Zuar. His troop, as enrolled: 54,400. The tribe of Zebulun. Chieftain of the Zebulunites: Eliab son of Helon. His troop, as enrolled: 57,400. The total enrolled in the division of Judah: 186,400, for all troops. These shall march first. On the south: the standard of the division of Reuben, troop by troop. Chieftain of the Reubenites: Elizur son of Shedeur. His troop, as enrolled: 46,500. Camping next to it: The tribe of Simeon. Chieftain of the Simeonites: Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai. His troop, as enrolled: 59,300. And the tribe of Gad. Chieftain of the Gadites: Eliasaph son of Reuel. His troop, as enrolled: 45,650. The total enrolled in the division of Reuben: 151,450, for all troops. These shall march second.” AND IT JUST KEEPS GOING.
To be fair, pretending to be interested in tedious topics is an important skill. Welcome to adulthood.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.