Becoming a Man: My Bar Mitzvah Speech, 30 Years Later
[Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Unscrolled, in which 54 artists and writers wrestle with the 54 Torah portions. Below is a portion of the author's take on his bar mitzvah speech for Acharei Mot-K’doshim and what he would do differently 30 years later.]
Esteemed rabbis, my dear parents, family, and friends: Shabbat shalom. Thank you for coming to celebrate with me on this day on which I become a man.
My bar mitzvah Torah portion, Acharei Mot, is about laws and limitations. Laws, I understand, are necessary, because without them, things go wrong, and people can get hurt. The portion begins with the reminder of what happened to the two sons of Aaron the high priest, and how they died by a “strange fire” because they did not observe the law, and were not careful enough when they entered the holy Tent of Meeting.
There are many different kinds of laws in this portion. These laws, I was taught, were given to us by God so that each of us can live a holy life, as part of a bigger, healthy society.
I started learning how to chant my Torah portion two years ago, back when we were still in Israel, from a cassette tape. I played it over and over again to memorize the verses by heart. At first, I didn’t think about what the words meant. But over time I started paying more attention, and I began to wonder about the meaning of some of these laws, especially the ones about not seeing people naked.
There is a list, in this portion, of relatives you are not supposed to see naked.
I figured out that “seeing someone naked” was a euphemism – a biblical way to talk about “having sex.” But I couldn’t understand why some relatives are on the list and some aren’t. And I had other questions, also, about some of the other laws.
My teacher, Rabbi Motti, didn’t want to talk about this too much. He said I’d understand when I am more grown up. When I become a man.
And I guess that day is today.
I don’t know if I’m as grown up as my teacher intended, and if I’m really already a man, but as I turn 13 today, I think I’m just old enough to ask you all a question about these laws, and about one of them in particular that I’ve been thinking a lot about.
After the list of relatives one is not supposed to see naked, there are a few other laws that describe prohibited sexual behaviors. One of the laws forbids sex with animals. Another prohibits sexual relations between men. It’s called an “abomination,” and whoever does it can be punished by death.
I’m sorry if this is weird, and maybe neither appropriate nor the speech you expected me to make today. But a few months ago, when we walked home from synagogue, I asked my father what it means to be a man, and he told me that to be a man is to be honest and not be afraid of the truth. And the truth is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this law, and it makes me afraid and ashamed to think about it and to talk about it, but it also makes me angry and confused.
I know it’s wrong to question God and the Torah, and maybe I’m too young to understand. But I don’t think the law about abomination is fair, and I don’t think that people who break it deserve to die.
Today, you say, I am a man. But I think that it already happened.
I think that I became a man almost a year ago, when I kissed for the first time, and felt like a grown-up. I kissed another boy, a friend of mine, a friend I love. It made us both afraid and nervous, but it didn’t feel dirty, or wrong, or like an abomination, whatever that is. It felt holy, whatever that is. It felt right.
I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.
You’re all looking at me now, and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve held this secret, this abomination in my stomach, long enough.
If today I am a man, then on this day I tell the truth and face it, like a man. And you, who came from near and far, if you really love me, will love me still, I hope, just the way I am.
I know the Torah says it’s wrong.
I know it’s disappointing to you, my parents and siblings, relatives, friends.
But maybe the Torah does not mean what I’m feeling, because I don’t think – I don’t believe – that God thinks I am dirty, or sinning, or an abomination. Because isn’t that how God created me, in God’s own image, just the way I am?
Today I become a man, and I am who I am, with all of my questions, and doubts, and hard choices, and truths.
I think that’s what becoming a man is all about.
Amichai Lau Lavie, the Founding Director of Storahtelling, is an Israeli-born teacher of Judaic Literature, specializing in the fusion of the performing arts with Jewish Education. He serves on the the Union for Reform Judaism's Faculty of Expert Practitioners.