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Torah Sparks

Parashat Tazria - Mevarekhim Hahodesh / Shabbat Hahodesh
March 29, 2014 – 27 Adar II 5774

Annual (Leviticus 12:1-13:59): Etz Hayim p. 649; Hertz p. 460
Triennial (Leviticus 12:1-13:28): Etz Hayim p. 649; Hertz p. 460
Maftir (Exodus 12:1-20): Etz Hayim p. 380; Hertz p. 253
Haftarah (Ezekiel 45:16-46:18): Etz Hayim p. 1291; Hertz p. 1001

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

After giving birth, a mother is in a state of impurity, and following that time, she is not allowed to touch or be a part of sacred places. The duration of these ritual statuses is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl. And if she has a boy, the boy must be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The mother becomes pure again after making a proper offering.

The text explores proper procedures for managing an outbreak of a skin affliction known as tzara-at. An Israelite priest examines such outbreaks and determines if they are chronic as well as if they are causing such ailments as an infected burn or diseased hair or scalp. He even examines when such an affliction penetrates fabric or leather. The priest determines whether the person or object needs to be isolated and/or washed after a certain amount of time.

Theme #1: Happy Birthday?

Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. (Leviticus 12:2)

The text moves to matters of bodily purity by noting the first days of a child’s life, and how these opening days are sacred for both mother and child.

[The verse] “When a woman at childbirth bears …” leaves out any mention of the male! For the breakdown in relationship caused by sin prevents true coupling as designed in the world above. — Zohar 3:43b

(Why do the laws pertaining to unclean animals precede those pertinent to uncleanness in humans?) As a matter of fact, man is weaker in body than any other living thing. Moreover, while other animals can obtain their food from field and forest without preparation or toil and are not in need of clothing, man must work for his food and clothing. Nevertheless, man is higher and more important than all the other living things on earth because he has been entrusted by God with the task and purpose of serving Him and studying His Law. However, he retains his position of importance only as long as he will be “worthy,” as long as he fulfills his task and works to fulfill his Divinely-ordained purpose. Once he becomes “unworthy” by not performing the task set him as a human being, he is lower than all the other creatures because none of them is saddled with the toil and cares with which he must cope. — K’tav Sofer

Rabbi Benjamin bar Japheth said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar: He who sanctifies himself [in his purpose] during sexual intercourse will have male children, as indicated by the fact that the verse “Sanctify yourselves therefore, and you shall be holy” (Leviticus 11:44) is followed by “When a woman at childbirth bears a male.” — Talmud Shevuot 18b

Questions for Discussion:

The Zohar seems to see the fact that the mother, and not the father, of a baby is mentioned in Leviticus 12 as a sign of a dysfunctional marital relationship. Why might the Zohar jump to that conclusion? If it believes that this is fact is due to some sort of sin, whom might the Zohar believe is responsible for this transgression? Regarding modern parenting, what does this text tell us about the ideal of two parents helping to raise a child? Or is it unfairly biased against those who must, or who choose to, raise a child alone?

The K’tav Sofer hints that humanity needs the responsibilities of learning and following the Torah because of its relative weakness as opposed to other creatures. Is “taming” our inhibitions a key factor in understanding the use of following Jewish tradition? Or are we stronger than the K’tav Sofer believes?

Keeping in mind that the Babylonian Talmud was compiled in a much more male-dominated time than 21st-century America, how do we deal with a troubling text like the above excerpt from Shevuot 18b, which indicates that religious thinking during sexual intercourse impacts a baby’s gender, and implies that a male child is a preferable outcome? Do we simply dismiss this comment as indicative of a particular time and place? Is it possible to learn something from it, even if it is different than Rabbi Benjamin bar Japheth’s original lesson?

Theme #2: Skins Game

And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him impure; it is leprosy. (Leviticus 13:8)

The skin disease of tzara’at (described in the above verse as leprosy, even though it has other meanings elsewhere) is not simply a medical matter – it also requires the supervision of the ritual authorities of Israel.

The discolored lesions described in the Torah are not in and of themselves tzara’at, they are only precursors to tzara’at — and medical texts indeed caution us to view certain dermal abnormalities just as if they were already fully tumorous. This is why the verse reads first [“The Kohen examines the lesion” (13:3) and] “If a lesion of tzara’at” (13:9), implying that is a pre-tzara’at itself. Only after the observation period of hesger (isolation) with clear clinical indications [“the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin” (13:8)] does it say “it is indeed tzara-at”. — Nahmanides

Rabbi Asher Stulin would complain about the chasidim. When they came to the rebbe, they would accentuate their good points and conceal the bad. When I — said the tzaddik, Rabbi Asher of Stulin — would study midrash in the presence of my teacher and rabbi [Shelomoh of Karlin] — and he would kiss the tips of his fingers at the mention of his rabbi — I would conceal from him the good. This is because there is no one except God who gives “reward and punishment,” [certainly not my teachers!]. Nevertheless, I would show him the evil in me [for the teacher is like a priest who heals]. And for this reason, the priest needs to see the affliction. — Sippurei Chasidim

Why does tzara’at no longer occur in man today? Because it was set off by the spark of holiness within the Jew which could not tolerate sin and hence reacted against all impurity by pushing it to the surface, where it then manifested itself in the form of lesions which rendered the individual unclean. But this would occur only in the generations of the past in whom the element of holiness was strong enough to be able to expel any and all impurity. In our own day, this powerful force of sanctity is no longer present and therefore the violent reaction which manifested itself in tzara’at no longer occurs. — Alshekh HaKodesh

Questions for Discussion:

Nahmanides says that the ancient Israelite cannot determine tzara’at without the “stamp” of the examining priest. Today, we count on medical professionals to make diagnoses all the time, and yet, quite often, we also seek multiple opinions prior to accepting a course of treatment (or, in some cases, we attempt to diagnose ourselves by using the Internet). Would our society be better off showing more trust in professionals, as was done in biblical times? Or do we owe it to ourselves to seek out every opinion we can find?

A lesson from this excerpt from Sippurei Chasidim is that rabbis and teachers perform a similar role to the priests in this Torah portion – not by passing judgment, but by gently guiding those in need. Are today’s authority figures as judgment-free as the rabbis and teachers in this story? Why is it so important to us for others to refrain from judging us? How does it make us feel when someone does?

In Alshekh HaKodesh, tzara’at is seen as the body’s way to resist sin as much as possible – something that we cannot do today because we lack the holiness of the ancient Israelites. While we might dispute that our generations are unholy, we do sometimes hide our transgressions deep within ourselves and resist bringing them to the surface. How do Jewish traditions, especially around the time of the High Holidays, help us shed our transgressions? How can we do so on a day-to-day basis?

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