Tazria offers instructions, Leviticus style, on celebrating the birth of a baby. The instructions involve ritual purity and impurity, offerings, and the quantification of time. For a certain number of days after giving birth (the precise number depends on the baby’s sex), the birthing mother is designated tamei (ritually impure). While tamei, she cannot come to the mishkan. Thus, when the days are completed, she brings her offering to the mishkan.
Some readers criticize these instructions, seeing in them a practical burden or a negative image projected onto new mothers. What if the instructions were rewritten in a modern idiom as describing Torah’s maternity leave policy? Would they still appear burdensome or impractical? Consider:
When a woman gives birth to a baby boy, she shall have seven personal days, during which her husband shall make no physical demands. On the eighth day, the boy’s father shall circumcise his son, bringing him into the community of males, and begin immediately to share the responsibility of raising him. For 33 more days, the woman shall enjoy her maternity leave. She shall be freed from the responsibility of attending public gatherings at the mishkan.
When a woman gives birth to a baby girl, she shall be entitled to 14 personal days, and an additional maternity leave of 66 days. The baby girl’s father shall not be expected to take as active a helping role in her early infancy as he would with a baby boy.
The woman shall mark the end of her maternity leave by bringing an affordable sacrifice to the mishkan. This first public appearance of the woman with her baby shall be an opportunity for celebration with family and friends.
Enjoy this shift in perspective. This week, what can you begin to view as an opportunity?
Seeds of Change (5771/2011)
Parshat Tazria begins with the words isha ki tazria v’yaldah– when a woman sprouts a seed and gives birth. Parshat Tazria gives the rules of ancient Israelite maternity leave. So it makes sense to begin with the words, “when a woman gives birth.” But why does the Torah add in the metaphor of tazria – sprouting a seed?
Perhaps the Torah includes the metaphor of “seed” in order to stimulate the reader’s mind to make connections with other places in the Torah where the word appears. In Bereisheet–GenesisChapter One, variations on the word zera, seed appear TEN times.
A seed contains a blueprint of a plant, something like its parent plant – but not exactly like its parent plant. Seeds scatter to new places, they grow in different environments, they become new plants, sowing new seeds…and the world evolves and changes. According to Torah, that’s how God intended the world to be: a place full of new opportunities, new connections, and new surprises.
Parshat Tazria, especially read together with its partner parashah Metzora, is about re-connections. When a woman gives birth, she and her baby are gradually integrated into the community. When a person heals from a disease that estranges them from ordinary social contact, the person is welcomed with a ritual affirming new life.
Perhaps by using the word “seed,” Torah reminds us that new phases in our lives will be something like our earlier phases – but not exactly. Even difficult transitions lead to new environments, new seeds, evolution and change.
Permission to Take a Rest (5771/2011)
Biblical scholars tell us that the word metzora means “a person with tzaraat — psoriasis.” Parshat Metzora describes a reintegration ritual for a person with psoriasis after they have healed from an outbreak of skin lesions.
Why should the Torah spend so much time on one specific condition when human life is plagued by so many worries?
The peshat (simple narrative) of the Torah holds one answer. Psoriasis runs in Moses’ family. When he stands at the burning bush, terrified to learn that God calls him to leadership, he has an outbreak. When his sister Miriam worries terribly about his wife and confronts him, she has an outbreak. No wonder their brother Aharon wants his priests instructed in helping people through their outbreaks.
A deeper look holds yet another answer. Today, psoriasis is classified as an auto-immune disease. No one knows the cause of the condition, but experts say it is “genetic.” Outbreaks come and go, and experts say they are caused by “stress” and “injury.”
The etiology of tzaraat is a metaphor for so many of life’s troubles. Nonspecific stress and injury plague so many people, yet our default position is simply to keep going, to hide our outbreaks under our social clothing, so to speak. Torah offers an alternative: acknowledge the stress, take some time outside the camp, return slowly. And through ritual, remind ourselves that we are not unique failures for taking care of ourselves. Everyone has to ride life’s challenges and opportunities.
The Life-Force (5767/2007)
Through the concepts of ritual purity (taharah) and impurity (tumah),Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora present the basic values of priestly theology. Tumah describes a diminished life force and taharah a restored life force.
Israelite priests thought of body and soul as one living unit – a nefesh. Damage to either the body or the soul diminishes the life force of thisliving unit. An individual is a living unit but so, in a sense, is a group of people. According to the priests, damage to the life force of a single person (tumah) diminishes the life force of the entire nation.
According to Torah, some regular natural events — such as menstruation, childbirth, or attending the dying at the moment of death — can drain the life force, causing tumah. These are transitional events that can carry risk or the fear of death. Irregular surprising events — such as disfiguring skin diseases or sins by public leaders – also drain the life force. These events unsettle the collectivity by breaking down trust in relationships.
The mission of the priests was to help restore the life force, or taharah, through symbolic ritual. By looking after the emotional well-being of each individual, and thus of the nation as a whole, the priests invoked God’s presence.
Questions, Speech, and Gossip (5766/2007)
A metzora is a person with tzara’at, scaly skin disease. Torah mandates that a metzora must be quarantined outside the camp for the duration of the illness. Once the metzora is healed, however, he or she is welcomed back into the community with an elaborate ritual. Birds, blood, wormlike thread, and olive oil are some of the technologies of the ritual.
By Talmudic times, rabbinic sages were baffled by the treatment of the metzora. They did not recognize the symptoms of the disease and could not identify it. They were so committed to the ethical practice of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) that they did not understand why sick people should be cast out of the camp.
So they looked for a story about tzara’at to give them some context. In the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, Miriam complains to her brother Moshe about his marriage and his leadership, and God strikes her with tzara’at. Moshe prays for her healing (saying “ana el na, refa na la”), but she still has to spend seven days outside the camp.
Thus the sages concluded that tzara’at isn’t a physical disease at all. Instead, it is a metaphor for thoughtless speech. A metzora is one who “motzi-shem-ra” – puts out a bad name or, in modern English, defames others. Such a person steps outside of the camp, because he or she fails to think about the social consequences of speech.
Much of the wisdom bequeathed to us by our sages was created as they voiced and explored their own questions. So please, ask questions – at the Passover Seder and beyond! Every question is the first step of a journey into the diverse world of Jewish thought.
Terrible Trouble (5766/2006)
Metzora is the biblical word for a person who has tzara’at. No one really knows what tzara’at is – only that Torah says people, houses, tools, and clothing can all be afflicted with it. The word metzora combines the Hebrew words tzar, which means “enemy” or “trouble” and ra, which means “bad.” Literally, the metzora is a person suffering from terrible trouble.
Torah says that the metzora “sits alone at the city’s gate” and “calls out ‘tamei, tamei’ – unclean, unclean!” (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:45-46) Traditionally, these verses are considered instructions from the priest to the metzora about how to behave while afflicted. But these instructions can also be understood as a description of how one feels when suffering from terrible trouble: alienated, lonely, outcast.
Eichah, the Book of Lamentations for the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, describes the terrible outer and inner trouble of the city and its surviving remnant. “How does the city sit alone!” (1:1). “’Turn away, tamei!’ they called out.” (3:15) The city and its struggling people are each a metzora: alienated, lonely, outcast.
Today’s haftarah (Melachim/II Kings 7:3-7:20) tells of four Israelite men, each a metzora with no will to live, who during a war discover a military camp abandoned by the enemy. They loot the camp, then remember that looting is unethical, and instead bring important military intelligence to their king. Terrible trouble, the story teaches, is not permanent. Times of bare survival can give way to times of prosperity, ethics, unity, and strength.