In the double portion, Tazria/M’tzora, we have the responsibility, even if it isn’t our pleasure, to investigate texts on birth and its aftermath, bodily afflictions and emissions, skin ailments, and leprosy. They were once taboos that raised fears in the community and turned priests of their day into guardians of purity.
In ancient times, body afflictions and emissions were terrifying. Physical ailments that appeared unclean rendered people unsuitable and excluded. In Leviticus 12 and 13, we learn that “when a woman at childbirth bears a male [child], she shall be impure seven days” (Leviticus 12:2). The fear and taboo of childbirth had the effect of isolating the woman so that no one would have to see her or tolerate her condition. Similarly, we read that when “the priest sees it [the scaly affection] he shall pronounce the person impure” (Leviticus 13:3). In each case, the members of the community who were physically different and potentially infectious were excluded and isolated.
Though it seems that we abandoned such fears and taboos long ago, and created inclusive houses of worship and study, our morning worship still opens with thanks to God for making our bodies with wisdom, and for “combining veins, arteries, and vital organs into a finely balanced network.”1 Consider that in Gates of Prayer, published in 1975 and replaced only a few years ago, a prayer asks, “Can we imagine a world without color … a world without sound…”?2 The prayer didn’t recognize anyone who does live in a world without color or sound, every day. Yet, a passage from Talmud teaches us to regard all God’s acts of creations:
“One who sees a lame person, or one without hands or legs, or a blind person, or one who has boils, or one who is pocked with small pockmarks; if this has been their condition from birth we recite the blessing, 'Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who creates a variety of creations.'” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 58b)
This blessing, psalms of comfort, and new prayers in our more recent sidur, Mishkan T’filah, help us acknowledge and welcome all (everybody) openly into the center of the Jewish community. Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation,3 an advocate for Jewish inclusion, made an impression on me when he said, “When we lose the child, we lose the family.” Biblical taboos persisted for far too long. Though we are the inheritors of Torah, we are not the keepers of teachings that violate our obligation to examine the world of science for discoveries in medical healing. Nor should we abrogate our duty to open our hearts and welcome those who do live and learn differently than we do.
In Torah, the role of the priest was to maintain the community. He sent out those who caused fear of an epidemic; but, he was duty-bound to welcome them back. When the beloved prophetess, Miriam, was stricken with snow-white scales and expelled from the camp for days, the camp didn’t move on until she rejoined them (Numbers 12:10-16). The future of Judaism needs everyone in the community to come along. Every child who is included means an entire family will accompany him or her. This is the better way.
Threats still persist. In the second portion this week, Torah defines the m’tzora, but the Rabbis explain the real threat and the potential cure. In Vayikra Rabbah, they ask, What is the law of the m’tzora? Without knowing what the scaly affection was except by its Hebrew name, m’tzora, they examined its consequences to the person affected, also called a m’tzora, and concluded that the person was a leper; that is, one who is considered unclean and must be removed from the community. Further they asked, Who is the m’tzora (leper) among us? That is, who among us should be banished from the community for the sake of the health and well-being of the rest of us?
The Rabbis parsed the word m’tzora into three essential words: motzi, Shem, ra. Motzi means “one who brings forth;” Shem is God’s name; and ra means evil. Now the m’tzora is the one who brings forth evil; or, it can be understood to mean the one who gives currency (value) to an evil report. The m’tzora, the “leper,” among us is none other than a tale-bearer, a gossiper, a rumor-monger. Jewish folk stories are replete with lessons about the evil effects of one who begins and those who persist in spreading rumors, and whose efforts to retract their words fail every time.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Five times is the word “law” used with reference to leprosy (Leviticus 13:59, 14:2, 14:32, 14:54, 14:57). “It is to teach you that if one indulges in calumny, it is as if he transgresses the Five Books of the Torah” (Vayikra Rabbah 16.6).
To prevent any harm that might come from participating in the effects of gossip and becoming a “leper” who’s sent outside the safety of the community’s boundaries, we only have to learn what Rabbi Jannai (Vayikra Rabbah 16.2) taught, namely, that the Psalmist asked, “Who is the one who desires life?” and answered in what follows immediately, “Keep your tongue from evil, depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:13-15).
We are all unique. You and I, and those who are touched by our life, are all part of God’s variety of creations. When we identify in ourselves what the unique gift is or permit others to help us learn what is unique about us, then we can be the blessing we were created to be and enable others to be a blessing, too. May our gratitude to God for all creations lead us to honor God through the ways we honor and serve each other.
- Chaim Stern, ed., Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook (NY: CCAR, 1975), p. 51
- Ibid., p. 51
- Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.
Rabbi Lyon begins his analysis of Parashat Tazria/M’tzora by looking at the opening verses, “When a woman gives birth to a male [child] she shall be [is considered] unclean seven days” (Leviticus 12:2) during which she is separated from the community. After experiencing childbirth, I see the reason for the separation not as a condition of being unclean but as a need for spiritual separation.
Rabbi Lyon begins his analysis of Parashat Tazria/M’tzora by looking at the opening verses, “When a woman gives birth to a male [child] she shall be [is considered] unclean seven days” (Leviticus 12:2). During these days of impurity, “she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary (Leviticus 12:4). As I read these words just a couple months after giving birth to my second son, they take on new meaning. Why would having a child make me impure?
In her book, Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas1 explains:
“… in primitive societies, including the Israelite society of Leviticus, the rules of holiness and uncleanliness were indistinguishable. At a time when science was not advanced and medicine often ineffective, minor ailments often led to terminal diseases … they felt the need to remove the threat from the community. The separation of sanctuary and consecrated things and persons from profane ones is basically the same as the separations which are inspired by fear of malevolent spirits.”
Clearly in today’s modern age, there is no need to be physically fearful of — and to separate — a woman who has just given birth. As a working mother, I have discovered how “isolating” being home with a newborn child can be for many mothers. Prior to my newborn’s eight-week shots, I was instructed to try not to leave the house. Other new mothers became my lifeline. Ironically, the danger was not that I or my child would infect the community, but rather that the community would infect my child’s pure and weak immune system. I wasn’t seen as tamei, “impure” or “unclean,” but I still felt that same sense of isolation.
How can we understand and make peace with Leviticus’ isolation of a new mother? Perhaps, in ancient times, the immediate days after birth were about protecting the mother rather than protecting the community. Today, in my case, I needed those first seven days (and the remainder of my maternity leave) to retreat from the rest of the world, to allow not only my child, but also my own body to recover.
Three lines before our parashah begins we read in Leviticus 11:45: vih’yitem k’doshim ki kadosh Ani, “you shall be holy because I am holy.” The word kadosh can also be translated as “set apart,” which changes the verse to, “you are set apart because I am set apart.” Giving birth to new life is a moment when we most clearly feel and witness God’s presence. For me, the days that followed required a spiritual separation from the life I had known before. Underlying the rituals in our parashah was a desire to take the ordinary and make it special by setting it apart and calling it kadosh — separate, holy, and pure. I chose to view that first week with my child not as one of spiritual impurity but rather as a time of k’dushah, “holiness,” in which I was allowed sacred time set apart for a moment of transition.
1. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (NY: Routledge Classics, 1966, reprinted 2004), p. 13-14
Tazria/M’tzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-854; Revised Edition, pp. 734-764
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 637-678
Haftarah, II Kings 7:3-20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 994-996; Revised Edition, pp. 765-767