You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Tazria.
From The Hebrew College
Crying Out for Help; Crying Out for Prayers
By Rabbi Avi Strausberg
This past year has been a reckoning with isolation. As a result of the pandemic, many of us have been cut off from friends and family and forced, at worst, to go it alone, and at best to band together with a small group of family and friends until we are able to re-emerge on the other side of this. We have had to celebrate joys, mourn sadness, and struggle with illness without the support of the communities upon which we hold dear. The hope for many of us, however, is that this period of isolation, however painful and strange and long it has been, is temporary, and that soon, we can return to each other.
For many however, this feeling of isolation is not temporary. Some who struggle with illness, both physical and mental, are no strangers to isolation. The stigma associated with illness sometimes pushes people to turn inward out of fear or shame, at the moments in which they most need the support of a caring community. We see this pain of stigma and isolation at work in this week’s parsha, Tazria-Metzora, in which we learn about the leper’s forced separation from the community for the sake of protecting everyone else.
According to the Torah, when a person comes down with leprosy, the burden falls on the individual to alert the community and remove themselves from their midst. A newly-afflicted leper must take on the public markers of mourning like ripping one’s clothes to indicate to the community that they are ill. However, in the case of a leper, the alerting of the community doesn’t stop there. The leper must call out about themselves, “Tamei, tamei! Impure, impure!” so that everyone knows to stay far away. The Torah teaches that the leper must remove themselves from the community, dwelling alone outside the camp, as long as they are sick (Leviticus 13:45-46).
We see this firsthand in the story of Miriam. When Miriam is struck with tza’raat as a result of speaking up to Moshe, she is forced out of the camp at God’s order. Painfully, harshly, God instructs, “If her father spat in her face, would she not be disgraced for seven days?”(Numbers 12:14). On God’s word, Miriam, at a moment in which she is no doubt afraid and ashamed, is shut out of community.
Tamar Biala, author of many modern midrashim and co-editor of the collection of modern feminist midrashim Dirshuni, offers a powerful imagination of Miriam’s re-entrance back into the community. In her midrash, “Miriam’s Passing,” she writes, “From the day that Miriam returned to the encampment, God’s statement about her ‘would she not be disgraced?’ (Numbers 12:14) was fulfilled and she hid in the tent and no longer revealed herself to the Children of Israel.” God instructed that Miriam should bear her shame for the seven days in which she was in isolation from the community. However, according to Biala’s midrash, her disgrace does not end with her reintegration back into the camp. Rather, even once she returns, her own fear and shame keeps her hidden away in her tent, unable to reunite with her community. Biala then imagines that in the same way that Miriam’s hides herself away, plagued by the fear that her disease will return, her community similarly hides from her, their own fear preventing them from embracing her and welcoming her back in. Miriam is left alone in her fear and her shame without anyone to see her, to love her, to support her.
Concerned for the well-being of the rest of society, the Torah may seem harsh in its treatment of the leper. In a moment of sickness, a moment when someone may most need support, they must publicly announce their contagious status and are cast out by their community. On first read, how cruel it may seem that the leper must call out about themselves, “Tamei, tamei!” They are forced to make public their private sickness in a manner in which I can only imagine would generate feelings of shame and guilt.
In the Talmud, our Sages offer us another way of understanding the Torah’s insistence that the leper declare himself tamei (impure). The Sages teach that a person afflicted with leprosy is like a sick tree. In the same way that we mark diseased trees with a red “X” so that passersby know to pray for them, so too the leper must mark themselves with a metaphorical red “x.” They must call out, “Tamei, tamei,” in order that their community knows to pray for mercy on their behalf (Bavli Shabbat 67a). I am struck by this evocative image of standing in a forest full of trees, some of which are marked with red x’s. It is as if the trees are bleeding red and crying out for help; our role is to take notice and to pray for them.
According to this new interpretation, the leper must cry out “Tamei, tamei,” not to shame themselves and to warn the community to stay far away, but rather as a cry for help, to alert the community that they, like the mourner, need support. Rather than encourage the leper to slink off shamefully outside of the camp until the disease passes, the Torah pushes the afflicted person to share their illness with the community so that they may join with them and pray for their recovery. This is what Miriam wasn’t able to do. Rather than cry out for support, she turned inward toward her tent. Rather than her community reaching out to her, they turned away in fear.
Ultimately, contagion aside, whether a person chooses to share their emotional and physical struggles must be up to them. It is the right of the person to choose whether to make their illness public. But, this text can teach us two things. First, it’s an invitation, when we feel safe, to invite people in and to call out for help when we need it. People can’t show up if we don’t let them know we need help. Second, it calls on us as a community to create an environment in which people feel safe to ask for help and it obligates us to show up for people when they do cry out. May this parsha teach us the importance of creating communities of comfort in which we destigmatize illness, listen for each other’s cries, and we feel safe enough to cry out ourselves when we are the ones in need of help.
“Towards a Well-Examined Life”
By Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg-Margo,
I must admit that I feel a connection to this parshah because this was the portion about which I presented a D’var Torah when I became Bar Mitzvah. I admit that at the time, I was quite uncomfortable with the contents. The chapters encompassed in Tazria discuss after-birth and skin afflictions (think acne to an adolescent) – not the topics that a thirteen-year old boy gravitates toward easily. But thirty-seven years have passed and I hope that I can now find some deeper meaning to these chapters than before.
I believe that my past discomfort with these two chapters was related to my focus on the content and not the process. The beauty of this parshah, and of Vayikra in general, is that when we are thrown from the “path,” we are shown a way back. When we experience a life-altering event, whether positive, like the delivery of children (chapter 12), or negative, like the death of the sons of Aaron (previously, in chapter 10), we are shown that there is a way back into life. A crisis, or even a simcha, takes us out of our lives to a different emotional or spiritual place. However, we are not built to remain in these places forever; it is simply not sustainable. Tazria begins a series of prescriptions intended to shepherd us back to a life in balance, a life reconnected to community and ourselves.
When we focus on the process, we can view differently the role of the priest, who is not acting in the role of a medical professional, but rather as a pastoral counselor, or a spiritual advisor. Not once in the process of dealing with skin affections does the priest propose a medicinal or therapeutic remedy. The role of the priest is to help the affected individual move from a state of spiritual impurity to a state of spiritual purity. The prescribed offerings are remedies, not for the body, but for the soul. Hashem is clearly the healer and the priest is the one who accompanies (which is the root meaning of “Levi”) the stricken on their journey back to spiritual health, to spiritual equanimity.
As emphasized by the large number of occurrences in chapter thirteen, the most important tool in the priest’s toolkit is seeing, or as many translations render it, “examining.” (It is not “sight” however, for there are many ways one can “see” something.) “The priest shall examine (וראה הכהן) the affection on the skin of his body…” (13:3). The instructions for the priests in the case of skin affections is to look at it, and look at it again. This is our challenge as well. How thorough do we examine our own lives? How many times do we truly see ourselves, or others? It takes time and patience before any conclusions can be drawn; the priests had to perform three checks within two seven-day cycles before making any pronouncements (13:3-6). We must remember that a declaration of impurity meant only that the affected individual was unable to partake of the offering set aside for consumption; it was not a newly designated character trait.
When we are ailing physically, we are also ailing spiritually. This is not to say that there is a correlation between the two, but that when we are physically ill or injured, our souls become troubled as we instinctively question the causality. Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?
This is a beautiful and subtle lesson of Parshat Tazria. By focusing on the process of examination and reexamination, on taking time to see the other, we gain a new appreciation for the priest as spiritual caregiver. How can we possibly assist a troubled soul when we do not open the windows of our own souls?
It Passes and We Stay
BY Rabbi JAN UHRBACH
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay—
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
The double parashiyot of Tazria and Metzora are devoted in their entireties to the Biblical notion of tumah, usually translated as “impurity.” In them, we learn three of the major sources of tumah: childbirth (Lev. 12); a condition known as tzara’at, which can manifest on skin, clothing, or the walls of one’s house (Lev. 13–14); and bodily secretions (Lev. 15). The two other primary sources of tumah are touching or carrying the carcasses of certain animals (Lev. 11) and contact with a human corpse (Num. 19).
But what is the essential nature of tumah, and what does it have to do with Emily Dickinson’s poem? The great Hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787–1859) offers an especially beautiful reading.
The Kotzker’s teaching is based on a Talmudic passage, from the beginning of masekhet Ta’anit (2a), identifying three phenomena which God attends to “personally,” without resort to an intermediary:
Rabbi Yohanan said: Three keys remain in the Holy Blessed One’s own hand, and have not been entrusted to any messenger, namely, the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of the revival of the dead . . .
Seizing upon this notion, the Kotzker says that at the moment when a woman is giving birth, God is present in an intensified, heightened way—in the Kotzker’s language, “higher holiness rests there.” He continues:
But afterwards, when the infant emerges into the atmosphere of the world, automatically the Shekhinah and incumbent holiness withdraw. And therefore, in this place, tumah “is born.” Because everywhere where there is a withdrawal of holiness, tumah is born in its place, as in the tumah associated with death, which arises for the same reason. (Ohel Torah, Parashat Tazria)
Here, the forms of tumah associated with human birth and death are a spiritual condition arising in the aftermath of a particularly intense encounter with the Divine. Note that this is not a state of unusual distance from God (and certainly not a complete absence of God, as no place is devoid of the Divine); rather, it’s an experience of relative distance, a reduction to “normal” levels of holiness and Godliness. Tumah is the psycho-spiritual let-down after a heightened experience of holiness, which in turn creates a vulnerability— perhaps to negativity or sin, or disaffection or doubt.
This magnificent reading points well beyond literal birth and death and the biblical category of tumah. Liminal moments of many kinds are often accompanied by an intensified experience of God’s presence, or a heightened sense of vitality and meaning. This is true whether the moment is predominantly joyful or sad (as births and deaths often are), or—like most profound, transformative changes—a combination of joy, sadness, excitement, anxiety, and gratitude. The intensity of such moments inevitably fades, creating a kind of grief that leaves us vulnerable.
We may be vulnerable to disillusionment, demoralization, or cynicism. Perhaps we’ll never experience that closeness to God again; perhaps it wasn’t even real. We may feel a loss of vitality, even a collapse of meaning. We may feel foolish for having believed. Or our vague sense of disappointment might manifest as retrenchment or fear. What if the transformative moment I felt was only momentary, and proves unsustainable? Perhaps nothing really changes at all. Things may feel too alien, or not different enough, or not different in the ways we’d hoped. Or the return of (or increase in) our quotidian responsibilities may feel like an affront to the holy: a moment ago I witnessed someone’s first or last breath, I witnessed the sacredness and preciousness of life, how can I now just go back to work?
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
The narrative of the Exodus from Egypt is a prime example. The Hasidic masters understood the exile in Egypt to be an experience of tumah —not necessarily sin per se, but lifelessness, hopelessness, a culture of death and sameness. Our redemption from Egypt was an act of tehiyat hemetim, the raising of the dead, one of the three “keys” that the Talmud said God reserves for God’s self. “Then Adonai took us out of Mitzrayim. Not by an angel. Nor by a seraph. Nor by a messenger. Rather, the Holy Blessed One, God’s self, in God’s glory,” our Haggadah reads. But the sense of the immediacy of God’s presence fades. Immediately after they cross the sea, they grumble and complain—resentful, anxious, unsure—“Is Adonai among us or not” (Exod. 17:7). Tumah manifests again.
What are the consequences of this loss, this tumah? Among other things, when the Tabernacle or Temple stood, one who was tamei (impure) could not enter the holy precincts, until he or she was again purified. Perhaps this debarment was an external manifestation of the internal state: the exclusion from the Temple representing the loss of prior closeness with the Divine. Or perhaps there was a risk that in the wake of the immediacy of God’s presence at a moment such as childbirth, even the holiness of the Temple service would pale in comparison.
Today, tumah has no practical consequence, but the Kotzker’s insight serves as both warning and comfort for the life of the spirit.
The warning: the Kotzker’s understanding of “impurity” doesn’t entail immorality, but it does involve a vulnerability to error and sin. So in the let-down after intense moments, we would do well to be extra careful. We might be inclined to be self-indulgent, to shake off religious constraints, to succumb to laziness or carelessness. Alternatively, we might seek to recapture the lost “thrill” through behavior that is morally or physically dangerous.
The comfort: this kind of tumah isn’t something to be avoided at all costs, and it’s not a sign that something is wrong. On the contrary, the particular contexts the Kotzker singles out—giving birth and contact with a corpse—are instances of tumah arising inevitably from a life of mitzvot. So too, vague disappoint or malaise are a natural part of the life of the spirit—hard to bear, but normal. May we be blessed from time to time with the immediacy of God’s presence—with that light that “exists in Spring.” And when “it passes and we stay,” may we bear the resultant “quality of loss” with renewed commitment.
“The Nexus of Life and Death”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, Ph.D., M.J.S., B.C.C. ’11
Lying in the delivery room after 24 hours of labor with my first child, I began to wonder if I would survive. I did. This week’s Torah portion starts with a focus on the laws concerning purification after childbirth: Childbirth results in a woman being impure (tamah, Leviticus 12:2). A period of waiting (7 days for a male child and 14 days for a female child), water, and sacrifices brought to the Cohen will make her pure (tahora). What might be the spiritual values that underlie the concept of purity (tahor) and impurity (tumah)?
Tumah is often described as an atmospheric coating or layer enveloping the impure person. Though invisible it was considered real. The Torah identifies four causes of impurity: human corpses, animal carcasses, fluxes of life fluids and a skin condition called tazra-at (the last two are the focus of Tazria) . All these are death or manifestations of death—the escape of the forces of life. The Women’s Torah Commentary on this parsha remarks that “a common denominator regarding physical conditions that produce impurity is their association with the nexus of life and death.”
So you may say, but birth is bringing forth new life. However, until recent times childbirth brought with it a higher potential of death. Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun reminds us that even if a woman successfully delivers a baby, it leaves a void, both physical and emotional (as we know from those who suffer postpartum depression).
My teacher Rabbi Anne Brener instructs that birth moves us from one womb (rechem) to another (el malei rachamim) under the wings of Shechinah in death. Birth and death have many qualities in common. Both result in the physical condition of impurity and are made tahor by water. In the case of the mother who has just delivered, she must have the Cohen complete the process of tahora with two offerings. In the case of a meit (a dead person), it is the chevra kaddisha that performs the washing that makes the meit tahor. There is a kind of paradox in the tahara: touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of kindness making the body tahor.
Although I have participated in several taharot, I cannot say I come away understanding life and death. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-in-a-body — tamei and tahor — these are mysteries, maybe paradoxes. How we become holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kaddisha will someday use to sanctify my dead body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole life journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp. Rabbi Ibn Pukedey teaches that life and death are brothers, they dwell together, cling together, and cannot be separated.
I honor this intermingled quality of life and believe that the purity laws of Tazria help us ritualize and witness this mystery.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Becoming Real: Tazria-Metzorah and Being Velveteen
Once there was a stuffed rabbit who yearned to be Real. His Boy loved him so dearly that he became Real in the eyes of the Boy — but when living bunnies caught sight of him, they laughed, because they knew he was only a toy, unable to run and play with the real rabbits.
Some of you are smiling. You recognize this story, by Margery Williams. Let me continue.
One day the Boy became sick, and the stuffed rabbit stayed with him throughout his illness. It was uncomfortable and hot but the rabbit did not budge, because he knew his Boy needed him.
When the fever broke, the doctor instructed the family to burn everything which had been in contact with the boy — his sheets, his clothes, anything which might carry the germs of scarlet fever. Of course, this meant the bunny, too.
So the bunny was taken to a place outside the house along with everything else which might be contagious, and set aside for the burning. But before the gardener arrived with the matches and kerosene, the bunny wept a real tear, and from that tear arose a fairy, and the fairy told the bunny that he was truly Real now: not only in the eyes of the Boy who had loved him so dearly, but real now in the eyes of everyone.
Why am I telling you this story today? Because of our Torah portion. Tazria-Metzora is full of blood, childbirth, leprosy, eruptive afflictions, and questions of purity. This week’s Torah portion takes us on a deep dive into the binary of tahor and tamei — usually translated as pure and impure, though I don’t like that rendering. I resonate with Rabbi Rachel Adler’s interpretation that being tamei means being charged-up, electrified, with a kind of uncanny life-and-death energy.
Have you ever been sick, and felt both physically and spiritually different from the “well” people around you? Have you ever done the holy work of the chevra kadisha, lovingly preparing a body for burial, and come away feeling that the world is in strangely sharp focus for a time? Have you ever given birth, or witnessed a birth, and felt as though you were touching the Infinite? Have you ever visited a hospital ward, and come away feeling that the hospital is a holy place — and also a place which gives you the shivers, with its reminders of mortality? That’s tum’ah: a temporary state of wakefulness to the Mystery of life and death.
This Torah portion speaks frequently of tzara’at — usually translated as leprosy or as an “eruptive plague.” Tzara’at is something with which a human being can be afflicted, and it is also something with which a house can be afflicted. In either case, the priest comes to examine, and there is a quarantine period, and if the house cannot be cleansed, it is torn down and taken to a place of tum’ah outside the city.
Although our Torah text comes from a time many centuries before germ theory, it speaks of contagion, and of whether and how it is possible to shed tum’ah and become tahor again.
Reading this Torah portion this year, I found myself thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit. His Boy contracted scarlet fever, and afterwards the rabbit was deemed contagious and was cast away. He became, in the language of Torah, tamei.
But it was through his encounter with sickness that he was able to become truly Real: not only Real in the eyes of his Boy, but Real in the eyes of the world. It was through the experience of being tamei that he was able to emerge into a state of taharah and to become truly alive.
And the same is true for us. Every life contains encounters with illness, contagion, and death. But when we take the risk of loving one another even though we know that life contains loss — when we oscillate with one another between sickness and health — that’s how we become Real.
Becoming Real, as the Skin Horse in the nursery reminded the Velveteen Rabbit, is not always comfortable. Usually it involves being loved until one becomes shabby and threadbare. Becoming Real comes at a price, and that price is willingness to be in the world, to age, to have one’s sharp edges rubbed off or one’s plush fur become tattered.
But once you are Real, you know that your fur growing shabby isn’t the most important thing. Once you are Real, says the Skin Horse, you can never be ugly.
Or, phrased a different way: once we are Real, we know deep in our hearts that in the eyes of the One Who made us, we are beautiful; we are perfect; we are loved; just the way we are.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
Letting your light shine
Glowing-person1וַיְדַבֵּר יי אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ…
“The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the skin of the flesh a sore …” (Leviticus 13:1-2).
Tazria is not my favorite Torah portion. There are no “bad” Torah portions — there’s good in all of them! — but I can admit that this is one with which I have struggled over the years. Some years I struggle with the teachings about childbirth. This year I got bogged-down in the verses about this skin condition and its treatment. Fortunately, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet — Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger — came to my rescue.
The Sfat Emet looks at the half-verse I cited above, and enters into it with a kind of Hebrew pun. He makes a link between the Hebrew words ‘or (עור), meaning skin, and ‘or (אור), meaning light. With this move, he radically transforms what Torah is talking about: suddenly this is no longer about an illness that generates sores in the skin, but a spiritual illness which does something to a person’s inner light.
In Bereshit / Genesis, when the first humans are exiled from Eden, God makes them garments of skins. Our mystical tradition reads this creatively to suggest that we didn’t have skins at all until we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — before we ate from that tree we were garbed in pure light. At havdalah, when we hold up our hands to the flame, we see glimmers of light reflected in our fingernails — maybe a reminder of the light in which we were once clothed, or maybe a reminder of the light in which we will be clothed in the world to come, since there’s also a teaching from the Zohar that in the world to come we will wear garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life. (I’ve written about these ideas before.)
So: Torah is talking about a physical affliction in one’s skin, but the Sfat Emet is (mis)reading it as being about an affliction which keeps one’s light from shining.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about skin as what covers us and keeps us safe from the world. Have you ever had times in your life when you’ve felt especially “thin-skinned,” especially vulnerable to harsh words or difficult realities? Sometimes I’ve come away from a week on retreat feeling that the week of prayer and study and community and safety has made my skin feel too thin for the “regular” world. Often by the time I get through the intensive spiritual work of the Days of Awe, my skin feels thin and my heart feels close to the surface, even exposed.
Skin keeps us safe. But — at least according to the Sfat Emet — it shouldn’t keep us from shining. You might remember that when Moshe came down from Sinai his face glowed, maybe because his inner light was able to shine through his phyical skin. It’s as though his skin became transparent and everyone was able to see his true light. And it’s worth remembering that his light was too much for the people, so he had to veil to protect them from the radiance he acquired as a result of his experience of God. Sometimes people don’t want to see radiance. Maybe it scares them, or reminds them of how their own light has been kept from shining.
For the Sfat Emet, tzara’at represents a closing or clogging of our pores, which results in our light not being able to shine through. (It’s noteworthy that the root of the word tzara’at suggests narrowness and constriction.) Tzara’at is a metaphor for what happens when we sin, when we miss the mark: we become clogged or closed-off and our light can’t shine.
What kinds of things — experiences, relationships, encounters — make you radiant?
Can you feel it when your inner light is shining through? What does that feel like to you?
What gets in the way of your inner light shining?
When something is blocking the flow of that inner light, how do you cleanse yourself — what can you do in any or all of the four worlds of body, emotion, thought, and spirit — so that your light can shine again?
This is a teaching I gave over yesterday morning during Torah study at the P’nai Tikvah Shabbaton in Las Vegas where I was privileged to be scholar-in-residence for the weekend. Deep thanks to Rabbi Yocheved Mintz and the P’nai Tikvah community for inviting me.
From Harold Goldman
More on Parshat Tazria
In Parshat Tazria, we read of the tamei and the
tahor, often translated as the “impure” and the “pure.”
They should not be taken as moral impurity and moral purity.
We, ourselves, are ok.
Look at the two words’ roots, “tam” and “tahor.”
When we say “tam,” we close our
mouth, stopping our breathing.
When we say tahor, our lips part, we
open our mouth, and we breathe again.
But it is G!d who gave us our breath.
This is how G!d gave us life.
This is why neshamah means both “breathing” and “soul.”
Notice the flow of your breath when you speak.
When we say “tam,” our lips close.
This is like closing a door to G!d.
When we say “tahor,” we are opening the door.
Tam, “impurity,” is a very brief state.
“Impurity” becomes purity in the brevity
of a breath, each moment of our life.
G!d gave us life when G!d’s exhale became our inhale.
G!d will take back our life when G!d’s inhale becomes our exhale.
This is natural, not to be feared.
Our true life will outlast our body.
When our body is gone, our
good deeds will remain behind.
These who knew us will repeat those good deeds, both
in their own deeds and in their kind words of guiding others.
Their breath shall carry those kind words to those
whom they shall meet as they go on their way.
And we shall live forever. The wind will carry
each of our exhales to each one of G!d’s new
creatures for as long as the world shall remain.
And our breath shall nourish them, as
each breath of our ancestors nourished us
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Eighth Day (Tazria 5776)
Our parsha begins with childbirth and, in the case of a male child, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3). This became known not just as milah, “circumcision”, but something altogether more theological, brit milah, “the covenant of circumcision”. That is because even before Sinai, almost at the dawn of Jewish history, circumcision became the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:1-14).
Why circumcision? Why was this from the outset not just a mitzvah, one command among others, but the very sign of our covenant with God and His with us? And why on the eighth day? Last week’s parsha was called Shemini, “the eighth [day]” (Lev. 9:1) because it dealt with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, which also took place on the eighth day. Is there a connection between these two quite different events?
The place to begin is a strange midrash recording an encounter between the Roman governor Tyranus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Rufus began the conversation by asking, “Whose works are better, those of God or of man?” Surprisingly, the Rabbi replied, “Those of man.” Rufus responded, “But look at the heavens and the earth. Can a human being make anything like that?” Rabbi Akiva replied that the comparison was unfair. “Creating heaven and earth is clearly beyond human capacity. Give me an example drawn from matters that are within human scope.” Rufus then said, “Why do you practise circumcision?” To this, Rabbi Akiva replied, “I knew you would ask that question. That is why I said in advance that the works of man are better than those of God.”
The rabbi then set before the governor ears of corn and cakes. The unprocessed corn is the work of God. The cake is the work of man. Is it not more pleasant to eat cake than raw ears of corn? Rufus then said, “If God really wants us to practise circumcision, why did He not arrange for babies to be born circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “God gave the commands to Israel to refine our character.” This is a very odd conversation, but, as we will see, a deeply significant one. To understand it, we have to go back to the beginning of time.
The Torah tells us that for six days God created the universe and on the seventh he rested, declaring it holy. His last creation, on the sixth day, was humanity: the first man and the first woman. According to the sages, Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit already on that day and were sentenced to exile from the Garden of Eden. However, God delayed the execution of sentence for a day to allow them to spend Shabbat in the garden. As the day came to a close, the humans were about to be sent out into the world in the darkness of night. God took pity on them and showed them how to make light. That is why we light a special candle at Havdalah, not just to mark the end of Shabbat but also to show that we begin the workday week with the light God taught us to make.
The Havdalah candle therefore represents the light of the eighth day – which marks the beginning of human creativity. Just as God began the first day of creation with the words, “Let there be light”, so at the start of the eighth day He showed humans how they too could make light. Human creativity is thus conceived in Judaism as parallel to Divine creativity, and its symbol is the eighth day.
That is why the Mishkan was inaugurated on the eighth day. As Nechama Leibowitz and others have noted, there is an unmistakable parallelism between the language the Torah uses to describe God’s creation of the universe and the Israelites’ creation of the Sanctuary. The Mishkan was a microcosm – a cosmos in miniature. Thus Genesis begins and Exodus ends with stories of creation, the first by God, the second by the Israelites. The eighth day is when we celebrate the human contribution to creation.
That is also why circumcision takes place on the eighth day. All life, we believe, comes from God. Every human being bears His image and likeness. We see each child as God’s gift: “Children are the provision of the Lord; the fruit of the womb, His reward” (Ps, 127:3). Yet it takes a human act – circumcision – to signal that a male Jewish child has entered the covenant. That is why it takes place on the eighth day, to emphasise that the act that symbolises entry into the covenant is a human one – just as it was when the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai said, “All that the Lord has said, we will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7).
Mutuality and reciprocity mark the special nature of the specific covenant God made, first with Abraham, then with Moses and the Israelites. It is this that differentiates it from the universal covenant God made with Noah and through him with all humanity. That covenant, set out in Genesis 9, involved no human response. Its content was the seven Noahide commands. Its sign was the rainbow. But God asked nothing of Noah, not even his consent. Judaism embodies a unique duality of the universal and the particular. We are all in covenant with God by the mere fact of our humanity. We are bound, all of us, by the basic laws of morality. This is part of what it means to be human.
But to be Jewish is also to be part of a particular covenant of reciprocity with God. God calls. We respond. God begins the work and calls on us to complete it. That is what the act of circumcision represents. God did not cause male children to be born circumcised, said Rabbi Akiva, because He deliberately left this act, this sign of the covenant, to us.
Now we begin to understand the full depth of the conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor Tineius Rufus. For the Romans, the Greeks and the ancient world generally, the gods were to be found in nature: the sun, the sea, the sky, the earth and its seasons, the fields and their fertility. In Judaism, God is beyond nature, and his covenant with us takes us beyond nature also. So for us, not everything natural is good. War is natural. Conflict is natural. The violent competition to be the alpha male is natural. Jews – and others inspired by the God of Abraham – believe, as Kathryn Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, that “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
The Romans found circumcision strange because it was unnatural. Why not celebrate the human body as God made it? God, said Rabbi Akiva to the Roman governor, values culture, not just nature, the work of humans not just the work of God. It was this cluster of ideas – that God left creation unfinished so that we could become partners in its completion; that by responding to God’s commands we become refined; that God delights in our creativity and helped us along the way by teaching the first humans how to make light – that made Judaism unique in its faith in God’s faith in humankind. All of this is implicit in the idea of the eighth day as the day on which God sent humans out into the world to become His partners in the work of creation.
Why is this symbolised in the act of circumcision? Because if Darwin was right, then the most primal of all human instincts is to seek to pass on one’s genes to the next generation. That is the strongest force of nature within us. Circumcision symbolises the idea that there is something higher than nature. Passing on our genes to the next generation should not simply be a blind instinct, a Darwinian drive. The Abrahamic covenant was based on sexual fidelity, the sanctity of marriage, and the consecration of the love that brings new life into the world. It is a rejection of the ethic of the alpha male.
God created physical nature: the nature charted by science. But He asks us to be co-creators, with Him, of human nature. As R. Abraham Mordecai Alter of Ger said. “When God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’, to whom was He speaking? To man himself. God said to man, Let us – you and I – make man together.” The symbol of that co-creation is the eighth day, the day He helps us begin to create a world of light and love.
 Quintus Tineius Rufus, Roman governor of Judaea during the Bar Kochba uprising. He is known in the rabbinic literature as “the wicked.” His hostility to Jewish practice was one of the factors that provoked the uprising.
 Tanhuma, Tazria, 5.
 This is also signalled in the Havdalah prayer which mentions five havdalot, “distinctions”, between sacred and profane, light and darkness, Israel and the nations, Shabbat and the weekdays, and the final “who distinguishes between sacred and profane.” This parallels Genesis 1 in which the verb lehavdil – to distinguish, separate – appears five times.
 That, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is why Genesis does not criticise idolatry but does implicitly criticise, on at least six occasions, the lack of a sexual ethic among the people with whom the patriarchs and their families come into contact.
 R. Avraham Mordecai Alter of Ger, Likkutei Yehudah.
From Rabbi David Ingber
Seeds Broken Open: Tazria- Metzora
From the Maqam Project
From Rav Kook
Tazria: Man versus Mosquito
Why does the Torah discuss the laws of taharah (ritual purity) for humans only after teaching the analogous laws concerning animals, differentiating between those animals which may be eaten and those which are unclean? Should not humanity, the crown of creation, come first?
Third-century scholar Rabbi Simlai explained:
“Just as mankind was created after all the animals… so too, the laws pertaining to mankind were given after the laws regarding animals.” (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1)
In short, the order here in Leviticus parallels the account of Creation in Genesis. But is there a deeper significance to this order? The Midrash elaborates the lesson to be learned from this:
“If one is deserving, he is told: ‘You came before all of creation.’ But if not, he is reminded: ‘[Even] the mosquito preceded you.'”
What sort of a contest is this, between man and mosquito?
Quantity versus Quality
We find in Psalms two nearly identical verses, but with small — and significant — differences:
“How many are Your works, God! The earth is full of Your creations.” (Ps. 104:24)
“How great are Your works, God! Your thoughts are very profound.” (Ps. 92:6)
What is the difference between these two similar verses? The first verse expresses our wonder at the variety and diversity of God’s works. “How many are Your works!” The second verse expresses our amazement at their greatness and profundity. “How great are your works!” The first verse refers to quantity; the second, quality.
In other words, we may look at the world in two ways. We can be amazed by its detailed, multifaceted nature — its abundance of species and life forms, the remarkable diversity in the world of nature. This viewpoint focuses on the diverse physical aspect of the universe. “The earth is full of Your creations.”
Or we may reflect on the universe’s inner side. We may perceive its wonderful sophistication and delicate balance, a reflection of the profundity of its design and purpose. This view perceives the underlying spiritual nature of the universe, focusing on the preliminary design — God’s ‘thoughts’ — which preceded the physical creation. “Your thoughts are very profound.”
Back and Front
The Midrash which contrasts man and mosquito opens with the verse, “You formed me back and front” (Ps. 139:5). What does it mean that humanity was formed with two aspects, “back and front”?
Back refers to the culmination of the world’s physical manifestation. This is the process of creation by contraction (tzimtzum), step by step, until a detailed physical universe, filled with multitudes of diverse creatures, was formed. From this viewpoint, the ubiquitous mosquito is the superior species. If we are not deserving — if we lack our qualitative, spiritual advantage — then we are reminded: “The mosquito preceded you.” In a contest of numerical strength and survival skills, the mosquito wins hands down. From the viewpoint of “How many are Your works,” even the lowly mosquito comes before us.
Front, on the other hand, refers to the conceptual design that preceded the actual physical creation. If we are deserving — if we put our efforts into developing our spiritual side — then we belong to the realm of God’s thoughts that transcend the physical world. On the qualitative basis of “How great are Your works,” we may take our place before the rest of creation.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah, Tazria (1929))
Copyright © 2013 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Maternity Leave (5774/2014)
Tazria offers instructions, Leviticus style, on celebrating the birth of a baby. The instructions involve ritual purity and impurity, offerings, and the quantification of time. For a certain number of days after giving birth (the precise number depends on the baby’s sex), the birthing mother is designated tamei (ritually impure). While tamei, she cannot come to the mishkan. Thus, when the days are completed, she brings her offering to the mishkan.
Some readers criticize these instructions, seeing in them a practical burden or a negative image projected onto new mothers. What if the instructions were rewritten in a modern idiom as describing Torah’s maternity leave policy? Would they still appear burdensome or impractical? Consider:
When a woman gives birth to a baby boy, she shall have seven personal days, during which her husband shall make no physical demands. On the eighth day, the boy’s father shall circumcise his son, bringing him into the community of males, and begin immediately to share the responsibility of raising him. For 33 more days, the woman shall enjoy her maternity leave. She shall be freed from the responsibility of attending public gatherings at the mishkan.
When a woman gives birth to a baby girl, she shall be entitled to 14 personal days, and an additional maternity leave of 66 days. The baby girl’s father shall not be expected to take as active a helping role in her early infancy as he would with a baby boy.
The woman shall mark the end of her maternity leave by bringing an affordable sacrifice to the mishkan. This first public appearance of the woman with her baby shall be an opportunity for celebration with family and friends.
Enjoy this shift in perspective. This week, what can you begin to view as an opportunity?
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Raise Up Your Eyes
Raise up your eyes
north south east west
can you count the dust of the earth?
So will be your seed.
The future –
more than we imagine
a dark mirror,
look down –
backwards too, you sentimentalists,
tahor – purified,
You are safe –
Small alef; poetry Tazria
D [3/4] E half-flat [3/4] F  G
Each Shabbat is associated with a musical figure
Cognate of maqom
Torah Reading for Week of March 27 – April 2, 2011
“Resonating Congruence, Radiating Holiness”
By Rabbi Mindie Jo Snyder,
“Oh G-d, the soul You have set within me is pure…”
How do we facilitate connection to G-d with this soul that is, at once, pure and hidden?
Leviticus addresses issues of holiness that were of great importance to our priestly ancestors. Since their understanding of the processes leading to the manifestation of holiness may be challenging for us now, it can be helpful to reflect upon what was meaningful to them, such as the belief that the encounter with G-d was a supreme privilege, requiring special protections. Purity was identified as a significant quality due to its perceived potential for manifesting holiness.
The title of this text, “Tazria,” has been associated with conception and childbirth. Its root, “zera” has meant “seed/ semen.” Another possible root, “taadi,” means “to carry or to conceive.” Associated with this topic, is a history of vigorous rabbinic discussion involving male and female “seeds” producing a baby and what about this process is pure, holy…or not ready for holiness.
There are two other featured Hebrew words that introduce us to states of purity and impurity: tzara’at and tum’ah.
“Tzara’at,” a form of “Tazria,” has also represented the biblical skin disease, “leprosy.” Although the term is familiar, it does not stand for the same disease we know today. In referencing ritual purity, Rabbi Salanter has said that we should be as scrupulous about what enters our mouths as what emerges from our mouths. “Tazria” engages in wordplay illustrating this teaching, depicting leprosy and gossip as contagious or contaminating. In Hebrew, “m’tzora” means “leper,” where “motzi shem ra” means, “one who gossips.” In Numbers 12:10-15, we learned that Miriam contracted “leprosy” subsequent to gossiping about her brother, Moses. Physical repercussions of gossip rendered her impure and placed her outside the community. In Ancient Israel, the identification of “tzar-at” served an important function related to purity, in rituals of separation and re-integration. University of Arizona Professor, Beth Alpert Nakhai, PhD, identified these rituals as containers of the life force at the point of illness. Returning the person to a state of purity, after the illness, enabled them to re-enter G-d’s community, anew.
Then, there’s the word, “tum-ah.” It can be understood as something a person can and cannot do, according to editors of Etz Hayim. This is evidenced by coming in contact with something that would have made the person unsuitable for approaching The Sanctuary. Interestingly, Jewish sages have referred to “tum-ah” as embodying a sense of the miraculous. It is thought that over time, as people responded to events of illness and death, human fears have been attached to the term, altering its general perception.
One way of transporting the sacred traditions of our ancestors across time, is to look at our thoughts and behaviors and what actions can improve quality of life. Consider what within us remains incongruent with what is outside of us, thereby creating a barrier to wholeness or holiness. For example: What is it that causes us to choose people or circumstances that are not representative of true love, true kindness, true compassion? What is it that we perceive, conceive of, contaminate, that could generate seeds of harm or hurt, indifference or inauthenticity? What is it that we are doing that diminishes us and distances us from G-d’s love? What would happen if we were to embrace the miraculous and not push it away out of fear? What happens to us, then?
May this Shabbat and the days ahead present moments that unveil the beautiful purity of your soul. May new choices resonate with your soul’s mission, and accompany you toward radiant health, strength in all realms of being, profound connections to G-d and those you love
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Tazri’a /Shabbat ha’Hodesh
April 2, 2011 / 27 Adar II 5771
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic StudiesThe Blood of Life, the Water of Death
Torah Reading: Exodus 12:1 – 20
Maftir: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
In religion, it seems, there are few things in which we can hold absolute certainty. But, of this I am sure: ask a room full of people to share a moment in which they felt the presence of God, and most certainly many will identify the birth of a child as such a moment. When I speak to groups, and here the immediacy of this answer, I will often ask them to come up with another example, thinking that perhaps identifying the moment of a child’s birth is the obvious or easy example. So, thinking I can offer a chance for intellectual and spiritual challenge, I will encourage another response. Yet, in re-reading this week’s Torah portion, I wonder anew if perhaps that answer is not so easy or simple, and if perhaps it signifies something much larger than either the people who respond in that way or I anticipated.
Parashat Tazria opens with the articulation of the laws of ritual impurity surrounding childbirth: “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days … On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days … if she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks …and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days” (Leviticus 12:2-5). Throughout this period of time, the Torah tells us, the woman is neither to touch any item consecrated for use in the Holy Temple nor even enter the sanctuary. Many are the questions that arise from this short passage.
Throughout the ages, commentators have struggled to understand if, in fact, the extra week of separation for a baby girl is about the recognition of the mother’s production of a baby who herself will one day have the power to create life, or if, in fact, the intention was for there to be a full two week period, and the mother is given permission to shorten it for a boy lest she miss the Bris (whose command to be done on the eighth day is explicitly understood from the Torah itself).
On the other hand, in a section of the Talmud devoted to the discussion of Nidah, ritual purity and impurity, the story is told of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai whose disciples come to him seeking an answer to understand why the Torah stipulates that a woman must bring a sin offering as part of the purification ceremony. After all, they seem to say to him, what is it that a woman has done that is so wrong that she is required to bring a sin offering before re-entering God’s holy sanctuary? The Rabbis response: Because when she kneels to give birth, she impetuously swears that she will never again submit to her husband. And since she later violates this oath, the Torah says that she must bring an offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 31b) This is the image often portrayed on television and in the movies. In the raw moments of pain, anticipation, and pure emotion, the woman on screen screams her promise never to have sex, never to have another child. Later, in the moment of rational thinking, this changes, and she indeed changes her mind. So, the Talmud says, she brings her offering to account for the words she may have said that are ignored.
For many modern readers, this Talmudic missive is but one example of the challenges in reading or finding meaning about niddah (separation) and tum’ah (ritual impurity) as it feels degrading and derogatory, especially towards women. As the Etz Hayyim Humash commentary describes so meaningfully, much of what we read about tumah is about what one cannot do, about the isolation from people and places that are usually the source of holiness, connection, and Godliness. And, as Judith Hauptman writes in Rereading the Rabbis, for many, the subject of ritual impurity is but “a set of rules that is degrading to women, that regard them as objects.”
To understand ritual impurity any differently, it is important to note that a woman after childbirth is but one example of one who is considered ritually impure. In fact, according to the Torah, the highest form of tumah comes after contact with a dead body. Would we worry that a doctor who unsuccessfully tries to save a life would not only lose a patient, but would also be filthy? Would we consider repulsive the person who volunteers as a member of a hevra kadisha to prepare a body for burial?
There are moments, however, when the overwhelming sense of life and death are so powerful that we simply cannot exist as we normally do. We do emerge, but when we do, we emerge different than before, full of recognitions of the enormity of creation, balancing the thin line between the blood of life and the water of life. It is precisely in moments of birth and death that we experience the most intense, existential feelings and reactions, and we become transformed. The miracle of birth and the tragedy of death are both awe-inspiring experiences, and it is impossible to walk away unchanged or unmoved. Furthermore, the presence of God and holiness of that moment is deep and impactful, and is very different than the regular quest for holiness that one pursues in daily life. Tum’ah is the necessary period of transition from the existential sense of God/Godliness and provides structure to arrive at the place when we can once again resume the daily, normative search for holiness.
For the woman who has given birth, there is in that moment of blending of life and death. For a moment, the source of life and death may be confusing – is it God? Is it the woman? Is it the man and woman? On this, the Talmud reminds us that there are indeed three partners in the creation of any human being – the father, the mother, and God. Yet, in the moment, there is awe, and there is wonder, and there is confusion. And, as the water and blood mix, there is a powerful blend of life and death. And, we are moved. We are transformed. And, we cannot simply move on. We need time to adjust and assimilate this new reality, these new understandings. And, we come to know and see God in new ways.
So, the real challenge is not about the authenticity of feeling God’s presence in the powerful moment of childbirth. It is in the opportunity to allow that awareness to change us each and every day knowing that any or all of us – man or woman, child or senior – have the potential to experience life and death at any moment, making any moment one in which we feel the presence of God, in which we participate in God’s creation. For that awareness and connection, I happily accept the need for separating and eventually re-entry.
“Cedar wood… and hyssop” (14:4)
Because he has exalted himself like a cedar tree… he should humble himself like a blade of grass.
If the point is that he should show humility, why does he bring both a cedar and hyssop? But the true meaning of humility is not to be broken and bowed, but to be humble even as one stands straight and tall.
(The Chassidic Masters)
A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying (Sanhedrin 37a), “A person is commanded to declare: For my sake the world was created.” In his second pocket he should keep the verse (Genesis 18:17), “I am but dust and ashes.”
(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH
The Midrash states: “We have learned: “What is the form of the embryo when first
created? It is similar to a locust: its two eyes are like the two eyes of a fly;
its nostrils are like two drops on a fly. Its two ears are like two drops on a
fly, and its two arms like two scarlet threads. Its mouth is like a barley seed,
its body the size of a lentil. And all its other limbs are contracted inside it
like unformed substance (GOLEM). And of this it says, “Your eyes did see my
unformed substance (GOLMI)” Psalms, 139:16; Midrash Rabbah Tazria, 14:8).
Says the Talmud (Niddah 30b): Rabbi Samlai taught: To what can the embryo in his
mother’s womb be compared? To a folded up writing-tablet placed with his hands
on his two temples, his two elbows on his two knees, and his two heels on his
two buttocks. His head rests between his knees and his mouth is closed and his
belly open. He eats what his mother eats and drinks what his mother drinks. He
does not excrete waste lest he kill his mother. And when he goes out into the
air of the world, what was closed becomes open, and what had been open is
closed. For if not so, he could not live for even an hour. And while in the
womb, a light is kindled over his head. With it he gazes and sees from one end
of the world to the other, as it says: “When his lamp shone above me” (Job
Reb Sholom Brodt
Story: One should not speak lashon harah even about one’s self!
Reb Yisrael Meir Hakohen of Radin, known as “the Chafeytz Chayim” *, was on the train back home to Radin. Opposite him sat an elderly simple yiddeleh. The Chafeytz Chayim asked him whereto he was traveling. “I’m traveling to Radin to meet the ‘tzaddik hador’ – the greatest tzaddik of our generation.” “Who is this great tzaddik that lives in Radin? I live in Radin; I didn’t know that the ‘tzaddik hador’ is living in Radin!” said Reb Yisrael Meir. “Why, it is the Chafeytz Chayim, Reb Yisrael Meir Hakohen is the tzaddik hador,” said the yiddeleh. “Listen, I know this man personally and I can certainly tell you that he isn’t such a great tzaddik,” said the Chafeytz Chayim.
Hearing such a brazen remark our simple yiddeleh immediately slapped the Chafeytz Chayim across the face and said, “How dare you talk thus about the holiest man of our generation!” The Chafeytz Chayim accepted what happened and didn’t reply; he remained quietly in his seat for the rest of the journey.
The next day our holy little yiddeleh came to the house of the Chafeytz Chayim to visit the tzaddik hador. As soon as he saw the tzaddik he fainted, realizing that this was the very same man that he had slapped yesterday on the train! When they revived him he cried and begged to be forgiven. “But,” the Chafeytz Chayim said, “you don’t need to be forgiven, and indeed I need to thank you for teaching me a very important lesson.”
“I taught you an important lesson?” He was astonished. “Yes, you taught me that one should not speak lashon harah even about one’s self!”
* Reb Yisrael Meir became known as The Chafeytz Chayim, the one who desires life, because of the book he wrote on the Laws of Lashon Hara, entitled Shmirat Halashon – The Guarding Of The Tongue. This sefer was widely accepted and we study it unto this very day. King David said, “Mi ha-ish h’chafeytz chayim, oheyv yamim lir-ot tov? Netzor leshoncha meyrah, usfatecha midabeyr mirmah.” (Psalms 34) “Who is the person who desires life, who loves the days and wants to see good? Guard your tongue from speaking evil, and your lips from speaking falsehood.”
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Tazria / Metzora
(She Will Bear Seed)
LEVITICUS 12:1 – 13:59
LEVITICUS 14:1 – 15:33
This portion details the laws concerning purification after childbirth and the
laws concerning Tzara’at. It goes on to describe just how the one who has been
healed must be welcomed back to the community.
THESE CHAPTERS ARE CONCERNED with the delicate times when one’s condition necessitates a period of separation from communal life. How does that separation happen and how is that person later re-integrated into the community?
Tazria begins by discussing the condition of a woman immediately after childbirth. She is blessed with a time of separation and then given a path for returning. I understand this condition not only in the context of childbirth, but in regards to the creative process. During a time of intense creative output, as with childbirth, a person steps outside the boundaries of time and space. She touches the realm between the worlds where ayin (“nothing”) gives birth to yesh (“existence”).
In that place between worlds she is completely taken up by the process of birth. The artist lives inside the poem, painting, or song, and the rest of the world, for a time falls away. The blessing of Tazria is in knowing that there will again be a way of returning to the community, to normal life. The time of alienation, which is necessary for the creative process to unfold, is also finite. The artist may return and bring with her the riches that she has mined and be re-integrated, welcomed back, and appreciated by her community.
DURING THE PROCESS of re-entry, the mother, or artist, brings two offerings, a Chatat and an Olah.
The Chatat is the offering that celebrates the purification from unintentional sin. If during my time of separation and focused creativity I have by necessity neglected other parts of life, I can be cleansed of guilt and blame, and with the offering of the Chatat be re-connected with the life of the community.
The Olah, the burnt offering, is completely consumed by fire, completely given. After creating something wonderful and being consumed by that process there is a danger of identifying your ego with your creation. When that creation is praised you may become inflated; when it is criticized you may become defensive. The offering of the Olah is a way of completely giving your creation to God, to the wholeness of the cosmos.
THERE ARE MANY TIMES in life when it may be necessary to seclude oneself for a time. Tzara’at, which is usually translated as “leprosy,” can be understood as a difficult inner psycho-spiritual passage that manifests as a disturbance on the surface. Someone with this condition needs to separate himself from the community for a time in order to pay close attention to those inner changes, which are the causes of the outer confusion. At a time of inner growth, it might feel like your life has become too small. There is a chafing or an irritability, and it is time to ‘leave the camp.’ It is time to go on a retreat.
The blessing of Metzora comes to us as the force of re-integration, symbolized by the priest, as it reaches out to you in your place of alienation, recognizes your transformation and brings you back to the community. In the ritual of re-entry, two birds are brought. One is killed, to symbolize the old self that has died; and one is set free in the open country to express the re-born self flying free into an expanded life.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
OFTEN, A PERSON’S GROWTH happens on the inside before it manifests in the outer world. The spiritual challenge lies in navigating this awkward time of dissonance between inner and outer. During this time the two realities must be reconciled. It is an uncomfortable time because there is a tendency to resist change and that resistance can manifest in the physical body. Retreat time is required in order to attend to and integrate the inner changes.
The spiritual challenge of Tazria/Metzora is to know when to separate yourself from the community and to know how to return.
The separation depends on having a community/relationship/family who honor and trust the process. This means that they understand the process of retreat as necessary and valuable to the life of the community.
WHEN SOMEONE ‘leaves the camp’ to do the inner work that is calling them, they will be fully available upon their return and will have an integrated wholeness to give back to the community.
The process of retreat requires paying attention to the subtle messages of the soul in an atmosphere of spaciousness, without the everyday distractions and demands of the outer life. For some it may seem selfish to take this time for yourself, but it really is a requirement in the life of service.
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
A person to whom shall occur in the skin of his flesh… (13:2)
Our Sages say that the occurrence of tzaraat was confined to biblical times, implying that later generations are not of the spiritual caliber that allows for this supra-natural affliction.
The reason for this can be understood from the opening words of the Torah’s description of the metzora. “Shall occur” implies a happenstance, something out of character; “in the skin of his flesh” likewise indicates that the blemish is only superficial, affecting only the most external layer of the person. In other words, we are speaking of one whose inner being is free of imperfection, and in whom any “blemish” or malady exists only on the outside.
Thus the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) describes Moshiach as a metzora, signifying that the messianic age is a time in which evils that have infested the world and mankind rise to the surface, so that they can be decisively overcome and cured.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Meeting “impurity,” and being changed (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for this week’s portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
Parashat Tazria- Metzora used to make me really uncomfortable. I bristled at the notion that bearing a daughter creates twice as long a period of impurity as bearing a son. I couldn’t relate to the alleged correlation between eruptive conditions and spiritual impurity. The obsession with pure and impure seemed basically unrelated to the Judaism I know and love and practice.
Over the last year, though, I’ve started to understand this question of taharah and tumah (loosely, and arguably poorly, translated as “purity” and “impurity”) in some new ways. What changed my sense of these concepts (and, by extension, this double-wide Torah portion)? Joining my shul’s chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society), and doing an extended unit of CPE.
In other words, coming into direct contact with sickness and with death.
I imagine most of us don’t understand sickness the way it’s depicted in this week’s Torah portion, at least not intellectually. Having a visible skin condition is neither a sign, nor a result, of spiritual impurity in today’s world.
But viscerally, many people have uncomfortable reactions to visible sickness. (It’s no coincidence that physical sickness — an embodied condition — affects us in our viscera, our own embodied selves.) Most of us feel uneasy walking into hospitals, for instance. There’s something distressing about confronting disease, bodies which aren’t functioning well, human beings like ourselves who may be dying.
We may rationalize our hospital discomfort by thinking we fear contagion. Though we don’t regard disease as spiritually contagious the way the ancient Israelites did, our modern understanding of germs and microbes can engender reluctance to touch those who are afflicted. Certainly those precautions are often life-saving, for ourselves and for those who are ill; there’s a reason for sterile scrubs and masks sometimes. But I think there’s something else going on in our fear of hospital rooms: an inchoate sense that contact with sickness and death changes us.
Meeting someone who is sick obligates us to remember our own fragility, our own impermanence. I too could be in a car accident on a snowy night; I too could develop cancer someday. Even if I live a long and blessed life, I too will someday die. Which means what? Crossing the border into something we don’t and can’t understand. There’s something existentially unsettling about these things.
When I have spent a night ministering to a family in crisis — children of a parent unexpectedly dead of an aneurysm; parents of a child incapacitated by a skiing accident; spouse of someone who is dying, or who is already gone — I have come away feeling the same kind of wired exhaustion that arose after my first time serving on the chevra kadisha. Dealing with sickness and death leave me a little dizzied, a little fried, as though I’d stuck my metaphysical finger into a socket and gotten charged-up with an energy I can’t quite describe. It’s not a bad feeling, exactly, but it’s not a comfortable one. It’s the spiritual equivalent of looking directly into the sun. I come away with my vision temporarily blurred.
This, I think, is one way of understanding what tumah is all about. It’s what clouds around us after a brush with the ineffable. Who could deny that birth, and sickness, and death are powerful? Though we can intellectualize them, there’s something about these physical changes that shakes us up on a physical and emotional level. These experiences may open doors through which we can sense the presence of God. These can be opportunities to encounter holiness. The hospital where I’ve been working is a manifestly holy place. But it’s not an easy one…and the holy encounter isn’t always gentle. The state of tumah is what we feel after that encounter.
In this understanding of what tumah might mean, I follow in the footsteps of scholar and theologian Rachel Adler. In her essay “Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” she writes:
Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumah is devil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory.
Birth leaves a mother tamei for a while, elated and exhausted and spiritually shell-shocked. Sickness makes us briefly tamei. Encountering death, too. Of course, death itself seems to be a great reverser; though those who touch the body of someone dead become tamei, our cleansing and wrapping and blessing of that body makes it tahor, tamei’s opposite. (I consider that one a koan — I can’t parse it logically, but it works experientially.)
Experientially: that seems to be critical here. The rules for dealing with eruptive conditions — the disease called tzara’at, menstruation and nocturnal emissions, houses which seep with mildew — aren’t meant to be dry intellectual fodder. This week’s Torah portion talks about embodied ways of approaching embodied problems. We no longer celebrate the end of skin conditions with cedar, birds, and hyssop (as this week’s parsha describes)…but there’s something powerful about the underlying message of the portion, to wit, that what happens in the garments which wrap and protect us (our bodies, our cloth, our houses) can impact our essential selves (our neshamot, our souls).
Earlier this spring I had a bad reaction to an antibiotic. (It turns out I’m allergic to sulfa drugs and should never take them again.) My body responded with a “fixed drug eruption,” an episode where skin on part of my body eroded away. The condition had a profound spiritual impact. During the ten days or so that I was sick, I found myself literally unable to pray the morning liturgy. And even once the condition was healed, it took a few days before my spirit felt as normal as my body did. Similarly, after an intense on-call shift at the hospital, it takes a few days before I feel ordinary again. Sleep and hot tea and a good hot shower are all part of the returning-to-normal process…but so is the healing passage of time. Experiences like these are dips into a kind of tumah which takes a few days to fade away.
Judaism resists pure dualism. This week’s Torah portion teaches that what happens in our bodies reverberates in our souls. As strange as we may find these verses about tzara’at and blood, I think they hint at truths we need to know.
From Rabbi Diane Elliot
Academy For Jewish Religion/CA Parsha of the Week
Torah Reading for Week of April 19 – April 25, 2009
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
by Rabbi Diane Elliot, ’06
This week’s parashah presents a number of conditions that, in ancient times, were seen to render a person “tamei,” a word usually translated as “contaminated” or “impure.” Particularly puzzling is the case of the metzora, a person suffering from the mysterious skin disease of tzara’at (which will later afflict Miriam when she speaks of Moses in a dishonoring way). A person so diagnosed by the priest would be required to go into a kind of mourning, tearing her clothing, shaving her head, and calling out, “Tamei, tamei, contaminated, contaminated!” He or she would be sent to dwell in isolation outside the camp until the affliction resolved itself. A priestly purification ritual would mark the person’s reintegration into the community.
The great modern Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz poses the question: why, when there are so many physical and spiritual challenges in life, does Torah make a point of teaching us how to combat this particular disease? As the beginning of an answer, Professor Leibowitz cites Midrash emphasizing that, in each suspected case of tzara’at, there is a waiting period of seven days, from initial signs to diagnosis.
The rabbinic commentators interpret this gradual, progressive onset as a sign of Divine grace; through these symptoms, a person is being put on notice by HaShem that he is out of balance. More specifically, the Sages point to the word metzora as a contraction of “motzi ra,” a person who “brings out the bad,” by speaking ill of another. They interpret the swellings, scabs, or shiny patches embossed upon the skin as physical manifestations of spiritual imbalance and ethical failure.
How is tzara’at cured? Torah tells us only that the sufferer is to be quarantined, sent into isolation. But we’re not told what the metzora does out there, beyond the pale of communal life. Does she fast and pray, weep and repent, take homeopathics, soak in Aveeno baths, use ointments and salves, do yoga? Or does she simply sit quietly, watch the changing light, listen to the wind, and wait for a sea change?
I find it significant Torah’s prescription for a disease that disturbs the integrity of skin is separation. Skin itself is both a separator and a connector. Like clothing, vessels, and houses, each of which could also become infected with tzara’at, skin serves as a defining boundary, differentiating inner from outer. In my experience, the everyday stresses of familial relationships, raising children, earning a living, and participating in community life often compromise our boundaries. When I’m flooded with information, when I’ve ingested more food or imagery or emotions than my systems can process, both my physical and my energetic skins express the distress. I become “thin-skinned,” “leaky,” irritable, more likely to lash out at a loved one or to dishonor or simply ignore my fellow beings. I can’t distinguish what’s emotionally mine from what belongs to others. I become tamei, cut off from the sacredness of life.
At such times, the most useful spiritual practice I’ve yet found is to declare myself “contaminated!” and to remove myself to a space mikhutz la’makhaneh, outside the camp, whether for an hour’s hike in Wildcat Canyon or a several-day-long silent retreat. I rest the faculty of speech that can be so abused and give my “skins” the opportunity to regenerate themselves. Sometimes knowing when to exit, when to absent oneself, is the most spiritually powerful action one can take. Perhaps this is the deep torah of the metzora: that when our boundaries become leaky and compromised, it’s the Divine Presence, woven into our very structure (“…v’shokhanti b’tokham,” ..”and I will dwell within them”), that bubbles to the surface, from under our skins, guiding us onto the path of retreat and purification.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Tazriah
Rav DovBer Pinson
Marking Transitions: Closing a Chapter.
This week’s Torah reading opens with the laws of Tuma/impurity, and Tahara/purity.
Purity and impurity are concepts which are wholly unrelated to personal hygiene or disease. The biblical definition of Tuma/Impurity is that which is connected with death, both in a literal sense, and also figuratively, as a separation, and Tahara/Purity is defined as anything that is life and connectivity.
Life is movement, a state of growth and possibility. In contrast, death is an ‘end’, a state of stagnation and immovability. Purity, is that which is fluid, Impurity is that which is cut off and static.
All forms of impurities are related to a death state. Anything sourced in death – or any form of absolute separation, is impure. That which is alive, growing and pregnant with possibility is pure.
The Torah reading begins with the words “And Hashem spoke…Speak to the children of Israel…If a woman conceives and gives birth…she shall be impure for seven days…”(12:1-2)
The Torah is describing the laws of a woman who has just given birth. While birth is the beginning of life for the child, for the mother who has birthed the baby, there is an experience of death, or absolute separation.
Throughout the pregnancy, the mother is one with the fetus, a single living being. When the baby emerges as an individual being, the cord is cut and there is an intense separation, which may also be the source of post partum depression.
This is a form of death for the mother, and therefore she enters a state of ‘impurity’. A time of seven days of ‘grieving’, so to speak, mirroring Shiva, the seven days of mourning.
THIS WEEK’S ENERGY
Marking Transitions; Closing a chapter.
Every birth on one side reflects a death on the other.
Birth or rebirth, for that matter, always occurs with the death,or the end, of something else. No beginning ensues without an end that preceded it.
In life we experience this cycle of birth and death continuously, one door closes and another one opens. Before a birth can be properly experienced and celebrated, the closing of the previous chapter must take place. While the birth is celebrated, the death is marked and grieved for.
This week we acknowledge and mark endings. We are imbued with the energy to close the chapter on something whose time has come.
To truly begin something new, the old reality must be put to rest.
Take the time to properly grieve for what has ended, while knowing that this is how all new, and better, realities begin.
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