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Parashat Tazria 5779 — 04/06/2019

Parashat Tazria 5779 — 04/06/2019

Vayikra 12:1-13:59
Our parashah shifts focus from the Temple service to the laws of “ritual purity” and “impurity.” This is quite germane, as someone who is ritually impure (tamei) is not permitted to enter the Temple or to participate in its rituals. R. Goldin points out that in fact, the words tahor (“ritually pure”) and tamei (“ritually impure”) are sometimes used in various contexts that have nothing to do with actual ritual purity or impurity. Further, there are some situations that make a person tamei where it appears that they have done nothing wrong. A woman who has just given birth has fulfilled her biological destiny – why should she be tamei and excluded from the Temple for a period? Similarly, a man who engages in procreation becomes tamei, as does his partner. A person or object that has become tamei can remove that status and return to the status of tahor by immersing in a ritual bath (mikveh). In certain cases there are other rituals that must be carried out and/or offerings that must be brought, but the essence of purification from tumah is immersion in the mikveh.

The most essential form of tumah comes from contact with death. The most obvious example is contact with a human corpse, but the tumah of a menstruating woman or of a man who has ejaculated is associated with the passing of the opportunity for new life. Yet, as R. Goldin points out, here too we have an apparent contradiction:

This central correlation between death and impurity, however, is difficult to understand. Kavod hameit, honor and care for the deceased, is one of the most powerful mandates of Jewish law. The obligation to assist in the burial of a meit mitzvah, an individual who leaves no one behind to care for his mortal remains, supersedes almost all other religious obligations. …
If the obligation to care for the dead is so clearly central to Jewish thought and law, why should contact with death result in a state of ritual impurity, causing the affected individual’s temporary exclusion from the Temple’s confines?

R. Goldin presents two approaches to resolving this contradiction.

  1. The separation from ritual life mandated for those who have contact with the dead brings into sharp focus Judaism’s emphasis on life. We are not terribly concerned with a theory of the afterlife and we don’t stock up our graves with provisions for the trip. A wise man once noted that whatever the afterlife may hold in store for us, our experience will depend on what we do with our lives in this world. Indeed, Jewish law and ritual are focused on increasing the holiness inherent in this world by our actions.
  2. The laws of tumah force us to become more mindful in the face of the challenges of the outside world. When we have to deal with death, the laws of tumah provide us a “time-out” to come to grips with the reality of our loss, and to ponder our way forward into the future.

In both these approaches we see that Torah demands of us that we be mindful of what we are doing with Gd’s world. We have to be aware of what is going on around us of course, but perhaps more important, we must be mindful of the way we are inside and the way we interact with the world. Our two parshiyyot deal with the latter – we are discussing tumah that arises from our actions – be they procreation (as in the woman who gives birth) or incorrect action (e.g. negative speech in the case of tzara’at / “leprosy”).

We can certainly understand that some actions are so negative that we must remain outside the Temple until we have purified ourselves of their blemish. The purpose of the Temple ritual is for us to come closer to Gd; if our minds and bodies have become polluted to a degree that that is no longer possible, then we need to stay away from the Temple so we don’t transmit our impurity to others.  What about those types of impurity that are not due to wrong actions – the woman giving birth, or somebody attending to a dead body?

There is a phenomenon in physics called “transients.” These are short-lived, high frequency vibrations of a system when it receives a blow. For example, when the clapper of a bell hits the body of the bell, the main tone is the fundamental tone of the bell. However because the blow is localized, many higher-frequency modes of vibration (overtones) are also activated. These overtones generally have greater friction associated with them (since they are vibrating faster) and therefore they die out quickly, hence the name “transients.”

It has been both my observation and my personal experience that when one goes through a major life change, such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, that one gets one’s “bell rung.” The whole system is shocked and there are transients – in this case emotional roller coasters and spiritual highs and lows.

After some time, they die down and we settle into a new, hopefully more elevated, spiritual state. In fact, most phase transitions, shifts from one state of organization of matter to another, display the same kind of turbulent behavior around the point of transition, followed by settling into a new, stable state. On a social level we find that when new leadership takes over an organization there is often a period of settling in, characterized by missteps and roughness, as new people and new ideas take over. And on the cosmic level, our tradition describes the period just prior to the coming of Mashiach as Chevlei Mashiach (the “birth pangs” of the Messiah). Perhaps the tumah that we find around the “phase transitions” of our lives give us (and those around us) a “time out” from participation in the Temple ritual until we are stable enough that the great spiritual uplift of that ritual doesn’t throw us even further off balance.

One thing that always smooths out our life is the process of t’shuvah, return of the mind to its source in the infinite, eternal and unchanging level of purity and holiness that is at the basis of our individuality. If there are enough of us doing t’shuvah, we can transform the world – smoothly and without great uproar.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Tazria

This parshah presents Gd’s commands about the states of being unclean and clean and also about the date for celebrating the beginning of a new year. When we are clean we can enter the Sanctuary and get the added ability to enjoy Gd’s Presence that the Harmonious Nature of the Sanctuary provides. Similarly, a new year provides such an opportunity since it is an opportunity to let go any troubles that might have been veiling our experience of Gd’s Presence.

Oddly, a woman is considered unclean for some time after she gives birth: I say, “oddly”, because considering the Holiness of giving birth, we might expect that a new mother would be particularly clean and therefore most able to perceive Gd’s Presence and most welcome to enter the Sanctuary.

Necheima Grossman on suggests an explanation: Gd has commanded that a person who touches a dead body is ritually impure; when a woman is carrying her fetus in the womb, she is extra pure—she has two lives.

When the child is born, she has only one inside herself, and so there is, in a sense, a loss of life. So she needs a bit of time and some ritual to feel fully alive again inside herself and not dependent upon her child outside herself to feel fully alive.

In other areas of our lives—for example, working on some extended project for work, home, service to community — there would certainly be the desire to celebrate when the project is complete but there might also be a feeling of loss, a feeling of emptiness because we no longer have the joy of hope to connect us to Gd’s Presence, we no longer have the silent prayer “Gd, please help!”. We have, instead, the joy of fulfillment, but perhaps some loss of the feeling that we need Gd and therefore less attention to the various spiritual practices that we do to connect to Gd.

Hopefully, we don’t have much of a loss, and we don’t have much time before we return to the perspective that what matters most in our life is not the fulfillment of any particular project, even childbirth, but deepening our connection with Gd, restoring our awareness to Fullness, to the experience of Oneness, Wholeness.

From my experiences with members of our congregation, readers of our newsletter, I am confident that we do maintain perspective, that every moment is a new year, our purity keeps rising and with it, our restoration of Full Awareness, Full Awareness that All is One, and One is Joy and Love, our Essential Nature.

Baruch HaShem