This week's portion Tazria falls in sync with the fourth of our five pre-Purim through pre-Passover special Shabbatot, when we include special readings for Torah and haftarah.1 This week on Shabbat HaChodesh, the haftarah from Ezekiel prepares us for the important new month, the month when we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt. The reason that this week is a "double whammy" is because it also includes the particular Rosh Chodesh, "new month," that is also the first month of the biblical calendar; it is the month associated with aviv, "spring," which was later called Nisan. Later still in our history, this first month in the biblical calendar was replaced by the seventh month, Tishrei, when that became the "official" New Year in the Jewish calendar. According to the later Rabbinic traditions, Tishrei is the first month of the New Year and Nisan usually is the seventh month (and in leap years, it's the eighth month) (see Leviticus 23:4-44 and Numbers 28:1-29:39 for the biblical order of the holy days).
The welcoming of the new month is another recurring chorus in our lives. Our Jewish calendar revolves around a number of inner cycles. The original cycle is agricultural. The next interconnecting cycle includes historic events that move us from creation to redemption, destruction, and renewal. The month of the holiday of Passover sits on the agricultural foundation of spring, when the Land of Israel is most green, lush, and covered with radiant and colorful flowers. In addition, this first biblical month announces the birth of the nation of Israel: it is the month we became a nation. Twelve months a year, we get our chance to renew; and on this particular Shabbat, we have the "renewal of renewal." In addition, the weeks leading up to Passover revolve around the inner cycle of the five special Sabbaths. Jewish time is a never-ending spiral of interconnecting events, phases, seasons, and stories.
Another foundational cycle of the year is our parashat hashavuah (weekly Torah portion) cycle. This week's portion, Tazria, opens with the mystery of birth. Just as the forces of nature and agriculture were thought to determine life and death in ancient times, so too was the force of childbirth. For our ancient forbears, blood represented life itself and therefore contact with blood could be both defiling and revitalizing. Childbirth rendered women impure, and therefore they needed to separate and then purify themselves in order to rejoin both the interpersonal spheres and the communal ones. We look back at these verses in chapter 12 of Leviticus, and are bewildered. We can dismiss this series of rituals as primitive and sexist, but closer examination brings our ancestors closer to us. The sheer power of the mystery of birth and—no less important, the survival of the mother in the process—was nothing short of a miracle. Therefore, she needed time to separate herself and then purify herself to fully return to her family and community.
To this day we are mystified by creation and birth and death. Our tradition celebrates the birth of the nation of Israel each Passover, and the birth of the world each Rosh HaShanah. On this Shabbat, we are reminded that while each new month brings the hope of renewal, this particular month is so special that our special Sabbath is designated as Shabbat HaChodesh. The additional Torah portion traditionally added is the description from Exodus 12:1-20 about that very first Rosh Chodesh. Our ancient Rabbis discussed whether the entire Torah should have begun with this special Rosh Chodesh. Exodus 12 describes the festival of Pesach, the first "mitzvah" we are commanded to observe as a people! Medieval Commentator Rashi brings this question, originated by earlier Rabbis of the Talmudic period, in his comment on the very first verse of Genesis. The question is a powerful one. Where does our story really begin, with Creation or with Exodus? The answer is more controversial than the question, especially when we read it today: it is that we begin with Creation, and since God created the whole universe then God can give the Land of Israel to the Children of Israel.
What is so startling about this commentary, no matter what one's politics, is that second century Rabbis, and later, Rashi in the eleventh century, wanted to reaffirm our claim to the Land of Israel. Paradoxically, both the story of Creation and to some extent the story of Exodus, tell our tradition's most universal stories. God created the earth and her bounty for all. The story of an enslaved people being liberated has been adopted by human liberation movements, most recently the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Momentous events, whether they be personal, communal, or national, can be filled with mystery, wonder, loss, and renewal. Parashat Tazria focuses on personal defilements and impurities. Much of this could be explained easily by scientific insight and knowledge, and therefore easily dismissed by us modern folk. Today's science combats the impurities of the past. The mysteries of birth have been so advanced by science in the twentieth century. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Robert Edwards for one of the great medical advances of our age: in vitro fertilization. When introducing the prize winner the Nobel Committee said that this development was, "Like a miracle, this method has enabled many involuntarily childless couples to have babies."2 Since 1978 more than four million babies have been born using this breakthrough "miraculous scientific" method.
We know that Robert Edwards could "explain" exactly what he did, but what he probably cannot explain is the faith, tenacity, and hope he held onto when he and his colleague met with failure, resistance, and confrontation. These are the mysterious wellsprings of renewal that make science open to the mystery. Our ancient priests and Rabbis did not have these technologies but they left us with the same sense of awe and mystery.
As spring is upon us in full bloom, let us look at the wonders of Creation as we prepare to celebrate the joys of liberation. And remember, this special Shabbat invites us to celebrate this month, and every new month, as the blessing and mystery of birth and rebirth.
- See haftarot for special days in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, ed. W. Gunther Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005) p. 1,436-97
- See http://nobelprize.org/
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.
Rabbi Kelman rightly points out the ease by which we can adopt modern medicine to "combat the impurities of the past." We must also be aware that our modern sensibilities can blind us from addressing the entirety of our condition. Knowledge of the cause or solution to a problem does not give us all the answers we may need.
Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman points out that the Israelites in Parashat Tazria were concerned with much more than their physical condition:
This is not medicine. It is not about illness in the same sense as other illnesses. It is not about disease as a category, as a subject to be studied in medical school. It is about a specific group of skin diseases. They are dealt with by priests, not physicians. And the priests' task is to diagnose the condition, not to treat it.1
Perhaps the kohanim, "priests," were tasked with assessing an individual's physical ailments because the kohein, "priest," was able to notify the community of a person in need. In our modern world we have a community of modern day kohanim available to us by e-mail, text message, and Facebook. Yet we often keep our ailments limited to our doctors alone to address. For reasons only each individual can explain for him or herself, we often find it hard to share our illnesses with friends and family. As we continue to pray for the hands of our medical professionals to heal us in ways that seem miraculous, we can also pray for the strength to turn to those who will help heal our souls as they comfort us with whatever challenge we face.
- Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, (San Francisco: Harper, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), p. 354
Rabbi Josh Brown seves at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska.
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