Sunday, April 10, 2005

Parashat Tazria - The Consequences of Creation

b"h

First: we apologize for unavoidable delay in posting this Parasha, due to technical difficulties. The site was experiencing a Blogjam last week and we were unable to access before shabbat.

Second: those interested in a unique, and thoughtful take on Oral Torah are invited to click on the Title for a link to Neil Littman's commentary on Daf Yomi - "Daf Am Ha'Aretz" - or go directly to http://amidlifecrisis.blogspot.com

Third: Hot Off The Press! "Jews On Trial", published by Ktav, Edited by Robert Garber. Posted on Amazon (though not 24-hour available yet). Available right now through the Princeton Jewish Center, Princeton, NJ. Book signing event on Sunday 17 April.

And now...

This week's Parasha is almost always read together with the following one, Metzorah, giving rise to opportunities to discuss the range of types of Tumah - ritual impurity - and their various effects.

This year, owing to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, we are reading no double parshiyot and the teaching of Tazria' emerges independently.

This parashah begins with the concept of ritual impurity as a result of a woman giving birth. There is then a fair amount of ink - both in the text and in the commentaries - devoted to the mitzvah of circumcision, followed by other forms of Tum'ah, all of which require the individual to be temporarily exiled from the camp.

The first thing that pops up on the screen is: the concept of ritual impurity - of being Tamei - is intimately tied to the act of giving birth. It is the mother who is Tamei, not the baby. And, even though there is blood associated with the act of circumcision, Milah does not render the infant boy Tamei, nor the Mohel who performs the ritual. It's a man's world, baby! But let us not wander off into apologetics, or into a Robert Graves-like (and I do give tremendous respect to the man!) wide-eyed paean to the awesome power of female fertility and its shocking and frightening effect on male-dominated society.

Why does the fundamental act of human creation introduce the notion of Tum'ah? What is Tum'ah, and how does it emerge from creation? Is there really a link between Tum'ah and creativity? I believe there is, and I believe the Torah is pointing to it in explicit terms. The Meforshim believed so as well, as witness the story of Rabbi Akiva debating with the Roman official who imprisoned him. The Roman asked if the creations of G-d were not superior to those of humans. No, responds Akiva, the creations of humans are superior: Cakes, superior to grain; Wine, superior to grapes. And the circumcised Jewish male, superior to the way he was born. For G-d gave us Mitzvot to enable us to attain our own perfection in this life.

The word Tam appears in Parashat Noach. The Hebrew root is spelled Taf, Mem. The root of Tamei / Tum'a is spelled Tet, Mem. However, the words are etymololgically linked (cf Jastrow) and appear to come from a common root concept meaning Circle, Ring. The concept of being Tam (Whole) is related to the closed loop of the circle. The concept of being Tamam (meaning Perfect - Tamim, in Noach) is the completeness of the circle. The concept of being Tamei (letter transmutation from Taf to Tet) is of the center of the circle closing up, the bounds swelling to seal off the opening. This suggests that there is a balance between the simple wholeness of a circle (Tam, meaning Simple: an empty circle. Remember that Pesach is coming, and one of the four children is called "Tam" - the child who knows something is going on, but isn't sure whether there is any meaning to any of it.) and, at the other extreme, a person who is so "full of oneself" as to exclude everyone from the center, the heart: exclude society, and exclude G-d. Again, in the Hagaddah we will call the fourth child "wicked", because the child separates himself / herself from the community, asking "What is this holy service to you?" It is fascinating that the Wicked Child's words show that the child recognizes the ritual of Pesach as being sacred, but deliberately does not participate. This is the classic definition of a Rasha' - a Wicked One.

Sidebar: Elisha Ben Abuya, known as "Acher" - "The Other" - is commonly misunderstood to have been an Apikoros. The popular notion is that, in order to be a true Apikoros, one must be truly learned. This gives people great opportunities for self satisfaction when dwelling publicly on their own Apikorsut. It is, however, not an accurate definition.

Elisha Ben Abuya, for example, was not an Apikoros; he was a Rasha' - he knew the truth and rejected it. An Apikoros is someone who says (for example) "In THOSE times they couldn't eat shellfish, because they didn't have refrigeration, and there was a risk of infection. Nowadays, with our modern conveniences, those halachas don't apply any more because the underlying reasons no longer exist."

A Rasha' is someone who knows the truth, and chooses to reject it.

A person who Creates - and the paradigm for human creation is the act of giving birth - is actually making something true, and something which has never existed before. The Creative act lies along the continuum of Chochmah / Binah / Da'at which is the very crux of G-d's creation of the universe. Thus, in all our Making, we are exercising that very aspect of ourselves which is Tzelem Elokim - the Image of G-d. After all, G-d is introduced to us as the Creator - it is the first time we see G-d, and it sets the stage for the entire cosmic relationship.

The second situation we are presented in the Parashah is that of Tzara'at - a whitening of the skin. Chapter 13, verse 1, opens: "And G-d spoke to Moshe and to Aharon..." The traditional understanding of why G-d addresses both Moshe and Aharon is, that it is Aharon's duty - the responsibility of the Kohen - to diagnose Tzara'at.

But does not the first instance of Tzara'at bind Moshe and Aharon in their destiny as twin leaders of 'Am Israel? In Shemot 4:6, at the Burning Bush, G-d commands Moshe to bring his hand to his bosom. When Moshe withdraws his hand, it is "metzora'at ka-sheleg". The ultimate translation of the word "zara'at" is problematic. It has traditionally been translated as "Leprosy". And the first appearance of this affliction - for it is definitely an affliction of some sort - is as the sign that Moshe will use to prove that G-d has sent him.

Moshe objects that the people will still not believe, even after the two signs (the staff that turns to a serpent, and the hand that turns white). G-d tells Moshe (4:9) "take the water from the river and pour it onto of the dry ground, and it shall turn to blood...:" When Moshe further objects that he is "not a man of words", G-d tries to cajole him one last time. But Moshe, desperate, says "Send anyone else, just not me." G-d becomes angered and says (verse 14) "And isn't there your brother, Aharon, the Levite?..."

This is the definitive moment where Moshe loses the Kahuna, where the roles of political leader and Religious leader are split. Moshe becomes, as some Meforshim have it, King; Aharon becomes Kohen Gadol.

The connection of Tzara'at, blood, the Kohen - this is unambiguous. This Parashah brings these themes together in ways that show what can happen when the human creative impulse gets out of control. There is a fine line in Judaism between the essential and critical importance of the individual, and the individual's role in the greater society. Moshe had a greater role to play, and his attempts to withdraw from his destiny failed. In failing, the history of the Jewish people was rewritten and Aharon emerged as the Halachic leader of the nation. This is an important distinction: Aharon is often identified as the "spiritual" leader, as the "religious" leader. Aharon is actually the Halachic leader, the person who sets the standard for all our behavior. Halachic observance Li-Shmah - For Its Own Sake - lies at the heart of our identity as a people. It is a standard we carry with us throughout our history.

The Halachic standard seeks to balance our own creative drives with the requirements of Torah. We are given the capacity to be full partners with G-d in the eternal ongoing process of Creation. And, lest we think we are creating all this ourselves, Aharon, the Man of Halachah, will come to examine us for spots that make us stand out. That set us apart. If we accept our role as G-d's partners, we can fulfill ourselves in this life. If we believe we are capable of all this on our own, then we are in fact rejecting our Partner.

For our own good, for as long as we remain Tamei - so full of ourselves that there is no room within us for others: not for our society, not for our own sisters and brothers, not for G-d - Aharon instructs us to leave the camp and remain in isolation until the swelling goes down. There is a mere breath between "Tam" and "Tamei".

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