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Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5773 — 04/10/2013

Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5773 — 04/10/2013

Upon the completion of the days of her purity … she shall bring … a young dove or a tutledove for a sin-offering … He shall offer it before Hashem and atone for her… (12:6-7)

For a woman upon giving birth has “a muddied spring and a devastated fount.” (Prov 25:26)  And after she has waited the days required for cleansing … she brings a “ransom for her soul” so that her fount should cease and she should become purified, for Gd “heals all flesh and acts wonderously” (liturgy).  (Ramban ad loc)

If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s’eis, a sapachat or a baheret (13:2) [These are all forms of tzara’at (often translated as leprosy).]

… then s’eis would be the name of the lesion that results from burning yellow bile; and baheret from white humor (phlegm), and sapachat (“joined affliction”) that lesion that is compounded from both of them.  (Ramban ad loc)

Any man who will have a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is contaminated (15:2)

And the reason for the emission’s causing contamination in a man is because of its being a severe disease, one of the worst among the contagious diseases.  (Ramban ad loc)

When you arrive in the Land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzara’at affliction upon a house in the land of your possession. (14:34)

Scripture says “I will place” a tzara’at affliction regarding the afflictions of houses to allude that “the hand of Hashem has done this” and not nature at all… (Ramban ad loc) (all translations/elucidations courtesy Artscroll)

When I was young and growing up in a Reform congregation, we were often told that the reason for the kosher laws was that they promoted physical health.  The common example given was that undercooked pork could give one trichinosis; if that word alone didn’t do the trick one was treated to tales of small worms crawling around inside your body – I’ll spare you the gory details which are easily accessible on the internet.  Then the argument ran: “Now we know better, our pigs are inspected by the FDA (this was before CAFOs and their attendant abuses) and we know to cook pork well, so – b’tei’avon!”  And in fact, according to the CDC, there were only 11 cases per year of trichinosis in the US during the 5 year period 2002-2007.  I went through my undergraduate years fuelled extensively by BLTs.  Heavy on the mayo please!

Now Ramban was a physician, and while the specifics of trichinosis infection may not have been known at that time, the above quotes indicate that in cases involving the human body he is quite open to the idea that there are “natural” causes for the various “afflictions” about which Torah legislates.  However, when it comes to tzara’at afflictions of inanimate objects, such as garments or houses, he indicates that they are delivered directly by Gd, presumably in order to correct some untoward situation.  Rambam, also a physician, takes a similar approach, labeling unkosher foods “unwholesome.”

Our Sages look at all these “afflictions” differently.  In their view, all afflictions are corrective measures used by Gd to give the recipient of the affliction the proverbial “attitude adjustment.”  They are very explicit about this in the case of tzara’at, especially of the body, which is the most severe form of tzara’at, and which calls for the metzora to be completely isolated from society.  The most prominent sin for which tzara’at and its attendent isolation is the corrective is lashon hara – speaking ill of others.  Speaking ill of others drives wedges between people and breaks down the fabric of society.  Measure for measure, the speaker of lashon hara is isolated from society until he does t’shuvah.  When he has internalized the severity of his actions, and Gd knows that he has changed so thoroughly as a person that he will not re-offend, Gd will heal him from his tzara’at and, after going through the appropriate purificatory rites, he will be allowed to rejoin society.  The whole process takes place only within the Land of Israel, when the majority of the Jewish people is living there, when the Temple is standing (so that the rituals of purification may be carried out), and only at such a time when the appearance of tzara’at will be effective in inducing repentence.  That time is apparently not the present time, as there is plenty of lashon hara’ spoken – especially during election campaigns, but even among Israeli Jews living in Eretz Yisrael we don’t find real tzara’at.

This  discussion brings us to question the distinction between “natural” and “miraculous.”  It has become a bit of a cliché nowadays to exclaim that everything is a miracle, but in fact there’s more than just a grain of truth in that perspective.  There are times when Gd does appear to intervene miraculously in the world’s workings – perhaps the most obvious example is the splitting of the sea a week after the Exodus.  But our Sages teach us that in fact, just as Gd willed the universe into existence when it was “first” created, so at every moment the continued existence of creation is dependent on Gd’s “renewing in His goodness every day the work of Creation” (liturgy).  And it is not only on the grand scale that Gd is running the show.  Gd is not like a human CEO of some big corporation, who doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with each employee or each process.  Gd has infinite energy and all the time in the world to manage (micromanage??) all the details of every level of the cosmos.  Our Sages say that “no one so much as stubs his toe unless it has been decreed by Heaven.”  (Whether one person, exercising his free will, can harm another person without its having been decreed in Heaven has been debated through the ages.)  It’s only that most of the time Gd does this through the medium of natural law, only occasionally “pulling back the curtain” so to speak to demonstrate that all the laws of nature are at His command.  Whether we get sick or stay healthy, whether we prosper or otherwise, all of these circumstances are given to us by Gd so that we can exercise our free will by making correct moral choices, and thereby grow closer to Gd.  And based on the moral choices we make, we are faced with other circumstances that either give us a chance to make amends for wrong choices, or give us a chance to move on to higher levels and greater challenges.

I want to use this idea to explore a perplexing requirement that the Torah places on new mothers.  After the requisite period of cleansing and purification (40 days for a boy, 80 for a girl), the woman is required to bring, inter alia, a sin-offering.  Leaving aside the fact that the word for sin-offering can also mean “purification offering,” our Sages ask what sin the woman has committed that she should need atonement.  They answer that perhaps, during her labor pains, she swore never to have relations with her husband again, and needs atonement for breaking her vow.  Now I can see three potential problems with this explanation.  First, the husband can annul the vow as soon as he hears it.  Second, perhaps she made no such vow – in this case she wouldn’t have to bring a sin-offering, but Torah doesn’t make this particular offering contingent on any reason at all, let alone such an apparently flimsy one.  Third, even if she did make such a vow, she would be considered “coerced” and the vow would be invalid from its inception – she would need no atonement any more than a person who tripped and accidentally hit a light switch on Shabbat needs atonement for turning a light on or off.  What did the Sages really mean in this Midrash?

I have never given birth obviously, but I’ve been present at a number of them and have read descriptions of many more.  One point that is often made is that during pregnancy and delivery, it is as if the woman’s body is hijacked by nature to produce the baby – especially during labor, one is not in control of one’s own body.  For the vast majority of us who identify with our bodies, this is an immensely unsettling experience.  “Natural childbirth” classes (at least a generation ago when I was taking them) focused on helping the new mother to relax and let her body do its thing – in other words to be a detached witness to what is taking place on the physical level.  The theory is that it is the woman’s struggle to retain control over her body that leads to labor pains.

But really, when it comes right down to it, none of us is truly to be identified with our bodies, or even our minds or personalities.  Those are just expressions of who we are, which is, at its basis, infinity.  And the infinite really is detached from the finite – nothing could be more different from the finite than the infinite!  It is only since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our infinite nature has been occluded, leaving us to identify with our finite selves – our bodies and senses, our minds and organs of action.  And since we are identified with finite values only, and are not detached witnesses to the play and display of the infinite within the finite, we must eat our bread by the sweat of our faces and bear our children in pain and sorrow.  Every woman’s sin-offering is an atonement for Eve’s sin (and the fact that her husband has to pay for it with his hard-earned money is the atonement for Adam’s sin!).

From this point of view, every affliction that Gd sends us is a reminder to us to wake up to who we really are, to peel away the layers of identification with surface forms and phenomena, and realize that we are infinite, unchanging, unassailable, silent witnesses to creation and all its processes.  I believe that all of the practices of our faith can be analyzed as means to this end, and when we achieve that realization, there is nothing, natural or miraculous, that we can’t accomplish.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 9

R. Yochanan ben Zakkai … used to say:  If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because it is for this that you were created.

Our Sages tell us that human beings were created to come to know the Creator.  Since Gd, the Creator, is infinite, it stands to reason that in order to know Gd we must also, in some way, become infinite as well.  This obviously cannot take place on the level of the body, which is material and therefore finite.  It must come on the level of the mind, which, as we all experience, can expand when we are well-rested and not pressured, or the opposite.I believe this is the ultimate meaning of the study of Torah – not only that we come to know Torah and its associated literature, but that we come to be Torah.  Torah is the blueprint of creation; it is infinite as is its Giver.  If we are identified with our bodies or our individuality, we can get caught up in petty games and one-upsmanship; since we are finite we feel a frenzied need to assimilate to ourselves more and more finite values – honor, riches, toys of all kinds (I’m writing this on December 26th).  When we identify with our deepest, infinite, inner nature, we rise above all this pettiness and learn Torah lishmah – for its own sake.  We become the ideal creation that the Creator meant us to be.