Imagine, if you will, that today is not today, and you are not who you thought you were when you woke up this morning. Imagine that today is really some years prior to today, and you are here to meet with the rabbi in preparation for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. I get to be the rabbi in this fantasy, after all, some things must remain constant in the universe.
You have arrived filled with a sense of awe—that odd combination of fear, excitement, and anticipation. Today is the day on which we shall unfold the pages of the Torah to find your portion within it and begin a process of study through which you will become a master of the text.
We open a large and imposing-looking book, and you learn your first words of Torah; the name of your portion is Tazria/M'tzora. Now comes the part where the learned rabbi, that's me, remember, points out to you the important themes of the portion. We will choose to spend the next several months of our lives learning and perfecting these themes for the day when you will become a teacher of Torah on the Sabbath morning as you come of age.
"So what does Tazria/M'tzora teach?" you ask, eyes wide with excitement and ears open to begin this journey. "Leprosy, acne, and afterbirth," I say in my most rabbinic voice. "All things that ooze in the Bible; these are the lessons of your portion . . ."
If you find that answer somewhat anticlimactic, just imagine how I felt when I was twelve years old and discovered that Tazria/M'tzora and I would be spending the next year of our lives together in preparation for my own bar mitzvah. I chose acne as my topic. I don't recall the particular insights that I brought to the text, but I suppose that at that age acne was a significant symbol in the process of my own coming of age.
It took another thirteen years before I would find myself in the company of Tazria/M'tzora again. I was twenty-six now and a graduating senior at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Each senior had the honor of leading the college community in prayer for one Shabbat. The order was determined by the drawing of lots, and the sermon that we would deliver was the last of our requirements before becoming a rabbi.
Imagine again the awe and expectation as each of us drew forth our lots, and for me, the not so pleasant irony as I unfolded my lot to find Tazria/M'tzora waiting for me once more. I chose leprosy for that Sabbath, based on an interpretation by Rashi concerning the vision of the priesthood as the leaders of Israel (see Rashi on Leviticus 13:12).
Having already addressed the themes of leprosy and acne once in my lifetime, I thought we might explore the particular ooze of afterbirth this time to discover what we can of the holiness beneath the text. I know you just can't wait to begin, so let's read from the Book of Leviticus 12:2-6:
"When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days. . . . She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. . . . On the completion of her period of purification, for either a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a purgation [sin] offering. . . . "
And therein lies the mystery. Why should a woman bring a sin offering after giving birth to a child? What sin has she committed in doing so? My favorite rabbinic answer to this question is that the sin of childbirth is represented in any unkind words that she may have uttered against her husband during the pangs of childbirth! (Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 31b). While there is a certain knowledge of human behavior that we all can appreciate in these words, to understand any of these obscure ramblings we must travel again through that portal in time, far, far back to the age when these words first found their form.
When Tazria/M'tzora was born, the process of birth was a profound and often frightening wonder. The primary cause of death among women from the age of the Bible until well after the American Revolution was childbirth. The rate of infant mortality was close to one in four until just before the twentieth century. The birth of a healthy child to a healthy mother was so wondrous an event that the entire process of childbirth was shrouded with fear and superstition. In such a world, where death and disease were seen only as a punishment for sin, there needed to be some sense to this struggle to bring children into the world.
Tazria/M'tzora is a portal to that distant world, a world of wonder at the birth of a child, and a world of thanksgiving for the blessings of life and love and family. This is why when we give thanks we call God, HaRachaman, "the Merciful One," even though there is an intended gender-bending message beneath that name. For HaRachaman shares the Hebrew root—reish-chet-mem—with the word rechem, which means "womb." It's a feminine image to be sure, but an appropriate one for God even more surely. For God surrounds us like a mother surrounds a child within her womb. God protects us and supports us and surrounds us with love.
"So there," you say as the wise rabbi finishes his speech, "there is something godly beneath this ooze after all. HaRachaman, the Merciful One, loves us like a mother loves her child." May we always be worthy of such love.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish Thought for two decades at Bellarmine University.
My hands are peeling from frequent washing. At our Friday evening Oneg Shabbat, we no longer tear the challah with our hands; now, we slice it with a knife and pick it up with a napkin. Hebrew school children are not welcome as visitors in our local nursing home. College students who are sick are isolated in special dorms or driven home by their parents, who then refuse contact with the rest of the community. It's 5770, and swine flu has struck.
The Torah portion of Tazria/M'tzora seems totally relevant. Like Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport, I once thought of this parashah as alien and disgusting. It was a bar mitzvah student, Zachary Lennett, who taught me to look at it differently. The year of his bar mitzvah, public health officials were worrying about a worldwide pandemic of avian flu that never materialized here in the United States. In Zachary's d'var Torah, he pointed out the wisdom of Leviticus 13-14 as public health policy: isolation of those with symptoms, frequent checking by the priest as medical-religious expert, and use of water for purification.
It is tempting to view the text of Leviticus 13:45-46, which demands that the one with tzaraatwalk about calling Impure! Impure!, as enforcing unwarranted isolation. When AIDS first made its appearance in the Jewish community, there was a great deal of fear and misunderstanding that led to unwarranted isolation of those who were HIV positive. Today, as we live with swine flu in our communities, we can see an upside to the kind of rules for tzaraat outlined in Tazria.And the other great lesson we learn from this text is that the rules of purification constitute a way back into the community for those who had been isolated by illness.
The mikveh, which has been revitalized for Reform Jews here in New England through the wonderful work inspired by Anita Diamant, Aliza Kline, and many others through Mayyim Chayyim, is one such avenue. The rules for purification outlined in M'tzora, in Leviticus 14, include offering a sacrifice as well as washing in water. In our day, this sacrificial offering can be explained as a way to dissipate the fear and isolation that any serious illness, whether AIDS, SARS, H1N1 Flu, or cancer, can inspire in others. The rituals for marking the end of medical treatment, developed by the staff of Mayyim Chayyim, help both the sufferer and the community to accept the healing that can be brought about through medical treatment and the spiritual support of our communities.
Rabbi Susan Bulba Carvutto is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine.
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656