What are sixth graders to make of a Torah portion that turns their stomachs?
Tazria -- it's the portion that sends b'nei mitzvah students into hysterics, cursing their parents for bringing them into the world during the spring, rather than in the fall, when the Torah portions come from Genesis. Countless rabbis have started sermons with memories of the horrible day they learned that Tazria was their bar or bat mitzvah portion -- so many, in fact, that it would seem that chanting Tazria at age 13 is a prerequisite for joining the rabbinate!
What's so terrible? Well, this portion (which is combined this week with the following portion, M'tzora) enumerates in great detail what the high priest needed to do when someone in the community developed a skin eruption. The descriptions of such eruptions are graphic, with references to white inflammations, red streaks, and scaly patches with white hair. Few sixth-graders can get through even a few sentences in the English translation without cringing, squeezing their eyes shut, or exclaiming, "Yuck!' and "Gross!"
So how can sixth graders have a productive conversation about Tazria?
I decided to open the conversation by telling them about my dog.
Last week, my dog picked up some kind of stomach bug. I called the vet and said that he had vomited three times during the night. The first thing the vet asked was, "What did it look like?"
Well, it wasn't exactly my pleasure to spend time on the phone describing my poor dog's vomit; but since that was the only way my vet determine if my dog's condition was serious, I gritted my teeth and did it.
I asked the students to tell me if they had ever had to do something that made them uncomfortable, but they did it anyway, because the consequences of turning away would be worse.
They responded with some interesting comments. One student mentioned that she had once chosen to taste a Japanese food that she thought looked disgusting, because she didn't want to insult the Japanese friend who had offered it. Another mentioned that a recent school lesson on puberty as an example of an experience that was distasteful -- but necessary.
I finished the discussion by talking about how the Torah is full of contradictions and separations, a theme we have covered before. There's darkness and light, masters and slaves, earth and sky, joy and grief, and so on. I reminded them that there are many beautiful portions in the Torah, but many less-pleasing ones as well, and as Tazria reminds us, attention must be paid to both.
Yes, there are times in life when you can mull over the glorious majesty of the land of Israel, as viewed by Moses after years of wandering through the desert. Sometimes you can relish the sublime mystery of love at first sight, as experienced by Isaac when he meets Rebecca.
And sometimes, you have no choice but to buckle down and describe what the dog's vomit looks like.