Tazria

  • Rav Avraham Walfish

 

The laws regarding childbirth and its aftermath, which open our parasha, will appear strange, at least to modern eyes. The joyful and dramatic event is marked by - a protracted period of purification, culminating in two sacrificial offerings, including a chattat (sin offering). The bulk of the parasha, concerning the disease tsara'at, normally - and inaccurately - translated as "leprosy," will appear yet stranger, an enigmatic amalgamation of (unknown) medical descriptions and purification prescriptions. Here, as in many other problematic Torah passages, we may gain insight into the rationale and significance of our parasha by paying close attention, not only to its language, but to its boundaries: its formulae of introduction and closing, its order and structure, and its broader literary context.

 

Insofar as our parasha deals with two topics, childbirth and tsara'at, it naturally possesses two introductory formulae and two concluding formulae. If we focus on the closing formulae, we will find a phrase characteristic of the first half of the book of Vayikra: "ZOT TORAT hayoledet" (this is the instruction regarding the woman who gives birth - 12:7), "ZOT TORAT nega hatsara'at" (this is the instruction regarding the affection of the tsara'at - 13:59). This ZOT TORAT formula appears 12 times between Vayikra 6 and Vayikra 15 (Regarding the frequency of this formula and similar phrases in the Torah, see Study Question 1). Hence we see that the two subjects discussed in our parasha are connected with the constellation of topics dealt with in this larger section of the book of Vayikra.

 

The introductory formulae within our parasha - at least, one of them (for the other: see Study Question 3) - indicate that our parasha needs to be viewed within a slightly different context. Chapter 13, dealing with tsara'at, opens with "Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying." The inclusion of Aharon in Hashem's revelation to Moshe, is characteristic of the majority of passages beginning with Vayikra 11 and culminating in Vayikra 15 (Regarding the frequency of this phenomenon elsewhere in the Torah, refer to Study Question 2). In Chapter 10 we have an even more impressive phenomenon: "Hashem spoke to Aharon, saying" (10:8) - to Aharon alone! (first opinion in Ibn Ezra, ad. loc.) Clearly the laws between Chapter 10 and Chapter 15 have a special connection to Aharon and the priesthood. The overarching theme of this section of Vayikra is tum'a vetahara, ritual impurity and purity, as we shall see a bit further on.

 

This in itself would be enough to explain the special role accorded to Aharon in the revelation of the laws recorded in this section. However we may arrive at a more profound insight into the priestly focus in this section if we pay attention to the way in which this section fits into the larger structure of the book of Vayikra. As was noted in the shiur to parashat Tzav, the special focus on the role of the kohanim began already in Chapter 6, in the context of the laws of korbanot. This could explain why the zot torat formula begins in Chapter 6 and continues through the section of Chapters 10-15, thus linking Chapters 6-7 (korbanot) to our section (tum'a vetahara). Yet Hashem's direct address to the kohanim, beginning with Chapter 10, would indicate that the focus on the kohanim in the discussion of tum'a is somehow more pressing than the focus on the priestly role regarding the korbanot.

 

The key to understanding this special emphasis on the kohanim is in the lengthy narrative passage - unique in Vayikra - which marks the transition from the korbanot section to the tum'a section. Chapters 8-10 describe the consecration ceremony of the mishkan, climaxing in the dramatically tragic death of Nadav and Avihu. Immediately following their death - and preceding the concluding details of the consecration ceremony - Hashem addresses Aharon, for the first time in the book of Vayikra, and warns him not to enter the mishkan after having drunk intoxicating beverages. Hashem commands (10:10-11): "And you shall distinguish between the sacred and the common and between the impure and the pure. And you shall instruct the Israelites all the laws which Hashem spoke to them through Moshe."

 

This command links the laws of tum'a with the tragic end of Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu failed to distinguish between permissible and impermissible ways of drawing near to Hashem's Presence. Their death conveys a message to all the Israelites, but especially to the kohanim resident in the mishkan and entrusted with its sanctity and its service. Approach to Hashem cannot be done in a state of intoxication (literal or figurative), which obliterates boundaries and distinctions, but must be done in full awareness and cognizance of the laws and regulations upon which the very notion of sanctity hinges. Sanctity, KODESH, is a Hebrew root whose meaning is to separate, to set aside. The idea is clearly enunciated at the end of last week's parasha (11:43-44): "You shall not defile your souls with any creature that swarms and you shall not make yourselves impure therewith and thus become impure. For I am Hashem your God, and you shall purify\hallow (vehitkadishtem) yourselves and be holy, for I am holy." Hashem's holiness resides in his being Wholly Other (Rudolph Otto), transcendent, separated by an absolute metaphysical gulf from the realm of spatially and temporally conditioned beings. Hence we may approach His Presence only when we learn and practice the divinely ordained laws of separation and division.

 

In the section following the laws of tum'a ve-tahara (Chapter 16 - see Study Question 4), Hashem refers once again to the death of Nadav and Avihu (16:1) and describes the detailed and complex ceremony by means of which Aharon may enter the Holy of Holies. Thus the laws governing tum'a ve-tahara are framed (Chapters 10 and 16) by references to the death of Nadav and Avihu, underscoring the connection between these laws of separation and the nobly tragic aspiration of free access to Hashem, represented by these neophyte kohanim.

 

The laws of tum'a ve-tahara open in parashat Shemini, Chapter 11, with a discussion of clean and unclean animals. Although we commonly regard Chapter 11 as dealing with dietary laws - which it does - the postscript to the chapter indicates clearly that these laws are part of the larger framework of tum'a ve-tahara (11:46-47): "This is the instruction (zot torat) regarding animals and birds and all living creatures swarming in the water and all creatures swarming on the earth. To separate between the impure and the pure and between the animal which may be eaten and the animal which may not be eaten." This is further indicated by referring to the forbidden species of animals as "unclean." Some animal species are inherently impure, such that they may never be consumed and their carcasses will always defile (11:8, 24-28, 31). Species classified as pure may be consumed, and their carcasses - if ritually slaughtered (See 11:39 and Mishna Chullin 2:4, 4:4) - will not defile.

 

This brings us to the opening of parashat Tazria. Rashi, following R. Simlai in the midrash (Vayikra Rabba 14:1), explains how the opening of our parasha connects with the end of the previous parasha: "As man was created after the domestic animals, wild animals, and birds, so his torah is explained after the torah of domestic animals, wild animals, and birds." This midrash suggests a connection between the laws of tum'a and tahara and the creation of the world. We may support and underscore this connection by noting the use, in the pasuk from Chapter 11 cited earlier (46), of terms highly reminiscent of the creation account in Bereishit 1: "and all living creatures (nefesh chaya) swarming (romeset) in the water and all creatures swarming (shoretzet) on the earth." Outside of this passage, the term "nefesh ch" appears in the Torah only in the creation account, the root "romes" only in the creation account and the uncreation and re-creation of the flood story (and Vayikra 20:25, which repeats our passage), and the root "shoretz" appears twice in the Torah outside of our passage (and related passages - 5:2, 22:5; Devarim 14:19), the creation account, and the flood story. By using these terms redolent of the creation story, as well as by preceding the tum'a of animals to that of persons, the Torah suggests that tum'a ve-tahara stems from a certain way of relating to creation (for further support for this idea, see Study Question 5). As we proceed we will attempt to clarify the nature of this relationship.

 

The juxtaposition of human tum'a to animal tum'a focuses our attention on a fundamental distinction between these two realms, noted by R. Hoffman (p. 249): "Animals defile only after their death; as long as they are alive none of them defile. However man, even during his life, finds himself in situations where he may serve as a source of defilement." Herein may lie the explanation for a puzzling omission of the Torah, within our passage. In listing the forms of tum'a generated by human beings, in parashiyot Tazria and Metzora, the Torah omits the granddaddy of all tum'ot: tum'at met (a human corpse), whose laws are outlined in the book of Bemidbar (Chapter 19 - see Study Question 6). Perhaps the reason for this is to emphasize the unique nature of human tum'a, which accompanies human life and does not make its first appearance at the time of human death.

 

R. Hoffman utilizes this idea to explain why the Torah opens the discussion of humanly-generated tum'a with the case of childbirth: "The most severe of these tum'ot [which are outlined in our passage] is the tum'a of tsara'at, hence it would appear that the list of tum'ot should begin with this tum'a. However, since a human being, immediately upon his emergence into this world, brings tum'a to his mother... therefore the Torah thought it proper to begin the order [of tum'ot] with that form of tum'a which a person causes immediately upon his birth."

 

This idea, however, seems paradoxical. Normally we understand the idea of tum'a as being associated with death. The Rav, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l, has written trenchantly on this theme (Halakhic Man, pp. 30-31): "Judaism... proclaims that coming into contact with the dead precipitates defilement. Judaism abhors death, organic decay , and dissolution. It bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism as reflected in halakhic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life. Death negates the entire magnificent experience of halakhic man. ‘I am free among the dead' (Ps. 88:6) - when a person dies, he is freed from the commandments" [Shabbat 30a]." (For further development of R. Soloveitchik's understanding see Study Question 7).

 

Other forms of tum'a also may be seen as death-related, as we have already seen in the case of animal tum'a. Regarding the tum'ot described in Tazria-Metzora, R. Yehudah Halevi suggests (Kuzari 2:60): "For death is the absolute loss of the body. A limb afflicted with tsara'at is similar to the dead, and similarly seed that has been wasted, because it has in it the natural spirit of life, and in it is the potential to join with a drop of blood, from which a man comes to be. Hence the loss of this seed is the antithesis of the property of life and vital spirit. Because of the subtlety of this loss, people don't feel it palpably..." We may complete his idea as follows: the Torah, by insisting upon (lesser) forms of tum'a for any physical process involving loss of a life-force, seeks to sensitize man to these more subtle forms of "death" and to force him to confront its spiritual effects.

 

R. Yehudah Halevi's explanation of humanly-generated tum'ot as expressing the loss or diminishing of a life-force seems to account for all the forms of tum'a - except for the one chosen to open the list of human tum'ot: childbirth. Here is the coming to fruition of maternal as well as paternal seed, the life-force has been enhanced, not diminished. Why does the Torah here decree tum'a upon the joyful mother, indeed the form of tum'a whose purification process is lengthier than that of any other tum'a?

 

We might suggest an answer along the lines of R. Yehudah Halevi. Indeed the birth of a child is a joyous event, a celebration of a new life. However, in human reality there is point of transition which only connotes the attainment of something new without connoting the end of an era, no beginning which does not also mark an end. (For further reflection on this theme, see Study Question 8). For the parturient mother this is particularly dramatic. During 9 months the mother felt a new life emerge and grow in her womb, an organic unity was experienced between the mother and the new soul stirring within her body. The emergence of the baby into independent existence in this world, while representing the successful realization of desires and hopes (we may add: redemption from the travails of pregnancy), also marks a separation, a loss from the mother's body of a thrilling vital force. The well-known psychological syndrome known as post-partum depression may be seen as a pathological form of this sense of loss and separation, which normally - as noted by R. Yehudah Halevi - is experienced subtly, or even imperceptibly. However the Torah recognizes the reality and the importance of this undertone of separation mourning and seeks to sensitize the mother to it by decreeing upon her tum'a.

 

R. Hirsch suggests a different understanding of the root and nature of tum'a. In his view tum'a arises from any encounter with "evidence that Man MUST - willy-nilly - submit to the power physical of forces... Man can master, rule, and use even his sensuous body with all its innate forces, urges, and powers, with God-like free self-decision, within the limits of, and for the accomplishment of, the duties set by the laws of morality; all these are Truths which, in the face of human frailty and the powers of the forces of Nature... are to brought again and again to the minds of living people, so that they remain conscious of their unique position of freedom in the midst of the physical world" (p. 308).

 

Of course the most dramatic and awesome evidence of the submission of man to physical forces is death, the most dramatic and severe of all the forms of tum'a. However, birth is no less a demonstration of the fact of man's bondage to his biology: "The Mother herself, under the fresh impression of her physically completely passively and painfully having to submit to the forces of the physical laws of Nature at the most sublime procedure of her earthly calling, has to re-establish again the consciousness of her own spiritual height" (p. 321). According to Hirsch we may recognize that there are two sources of tum'a, rather than one: death and sexuality. Death and sexuality strip man of his flimsy layer of control, domination, intellectual and spiritual order and render him naked before the forces of biological nature which hold him in thrall. A spiritually naked man may not enter the mishkan or draw close to the divine Presence, but must observe a period of tum'a before re-entering the sphere in which he feels that his spiritual consciousness is firmly in control of his personality.

 

The Torah's allusions in Chapter 11 to the creation, as well as the juxtaposition of human to animal tum'a, may now be understood clearly. The laws of tum'a ve-tahara are a summons to man to reflect upon the relationship of spirit and of animal biology, within his personality. His entry into the presence of Hashem is contingent upon his being a noble, exalted being (R. Soloveitchik, R. Yehudah Halevi), sovereign over his own nature and being (R. Hirsch), capable of freely willing to submit to the divine call. However this free and exalted aspect of his being, central as it is to the Torah's anthropology, is not the sum total of human existence. Biological nature consists in an ongoing oscillation between birth and death. Birtand death are bound together in an often mysterious and dialectical rhythm. On occasions which bring home to man how beholden he is to this mysterious rhythm stirring within his body, the Torah bids him to step back, to surrender momentarily to his biological helplessness, to undergo a process of purification designed to refashion that thin buffering layer of spiritual exaltation which raises man above the beasts.

 

We may further suggest that it is not accidental that the death of Nadav and Avihu serves as catalyst to the topic of tum'a ve-tahara. The death of Nadav and Avihu was an enigmatic and numinous event, which added to the joyous celebration of sanctifying the mishkan a note of sobriety and grief. Aharon and his sons are enjoined to continue the celebration (10:6, 18), even while the grief over the sudden tragic death is fresh (10:7, 19). Nadav and Avihu, in their heedless and unauthorized mode of entry into the divine Presence, are consumed by the same heavenly fire which consumes the animal sacrifices on the altar, representing that selfsame divine Presence. The divine Presence is simultaneously the cause of joy and of grief, as man witnesses simultaneously the attainment of his highest dream and prayer and the shattering of his hopes and his joy. This dialectical and enigmatic enactment of the paradox of man, imprisoned within his space-time and biological urges, drawing near to the transcendent Wholly Other Hashem, casts its shadow over the entire framework of the laws of tum'a.

 

STUDY QUESTIONS:

1. Outside of Vayikra 6-15, the zot torat formula appears only 3 more times in the Torah, in Bemidbar 5-6. Can you explain this - is there some connection between Vayikra 6-15 and Bemidbar 5-6?

a. There are also formulae similar to zot torat, which appear in Vayikra 6-15, as well as in passages in Bemidbar: zot hatorah (Vayikra 7:37, 14:54; Bemidbar 19:14) and zot chukkat hatorah (Bemidbar 19:2, 31:21). How do the passages in Bemidbar 19 and 31 relate to Vayikra 6-15?

b. Which of the following pesukim are relevant to our study of the zot torat formula: vezot hatorah (Devarim 4:44), hatorah hazot (Bemidbar 5:30; Devarim 4:8, 17:18-19, etc.), zot chukkat hapesach (Shemot 12:43)? Explain why.

2. Where else in the Torah do we find Hashem speaking to Aharon, together with Moshe?

a. Where else in the Torah do we find Hashem addressing Aharon alone?

b. Can you suggest an explanation for Aharon's role in each of these revelations?

c. How do Chazal understand Aharon's role in these revelations, in the following passages? Which, if any, of these midrashim correspond to the idea suggested in the shiur?

(1) Vayikra Rabba 12:2: "[Aharon] was silent [regarding the death of his sons] and received a reward for his silence... He was privileged and Scripture granted him a divine address by himself."

(2) Sifre Bemidbar 116 (p. 130), in relation to Bemidbar 18:1: R. Ishmael says: One commands the one into whose hands the responsibility is given."

3. J. Milgrom, Anchor Bible, pp. 645, 743, comments that "the absence of Aaron [in the revelation of 12:1]... though the priestly officiation is essential (vv. 6-8), seems inexplicable."

a. Why does Milgrom add the words "though the priestly officiation is essential"?

b. Can you suggest a reason why 12:1 is addressed to Moshe alone? Note that 14:1 is also addressed to Moshe alone - does this help suggest a reason? Does this reason square with 14:33, which is addressed to Aharon, as well as to Moshe? Why and how?

4. In our shiur we referred to Chapter 16 as following the tum'a ve-tahara section of Vayikra. It may also be viewed as the conclusion of the tum'a ve-tahara section of Vayikra. How and why?

a. Can Chapter 18 be viewed as part of - or related to - the tum'a ve-tahara section? Explain.

b. Tum'a ve-tahara also appear at the end of Chapter 20 and in Chapter 21, however most commentators would agree that these chapters belong to the third part of the book of Vayikra, usually termed the Holiness section. Why?

5. The tsara'at passage (Chapter 13) is one of only 2 mitzvah passages in Vayikra which open with the word "Adam." Can you suggest a reason why this passage would open with this word?

a. Can you suggest a reason why the other passage (1:2) opens with the word "Adam"?

b. The word "Adam" in 1:2 appears in a different way (see the wording of the entire phrase) than in 13:2. What is the difference and how might we understand its significance? (Refer to R. Hoffman, pp. 80-81).

c. Compare Bemidbar 19:14 and suggest an explanation for the opening formula there.

6. In the shiur tum'at met (human corpse) was referred to as "the granddaddy of all tum'ot." Can you support this characterization, on the basis of the laws relating to this tum'a described in Bemidbar 19?

a. While the Torah doesn't detail the laws of corpse-tum'a until Bemidbar 19, this tum'a is presumed in several earlier passages: Vayikra 5:3, 21:1-4, 11; Bemidbar 5:2, 6:6 ff., 9:6 ff. Can you find further support in any of these passages for the characterization of tum'at met as especially severe?

b. Does the existence of these passages support or undermine the thesis advanced in the shiur to explain why tum'at met doesn't appear in Tazria-Metzora?

7. R. Soloveitchik explained, in the passage quoted in the shiur, the abhorrence that Judaism feels towards death. Why, in your view, is tum'a a fitting halakhic result or expression of this abhorrence?

a. R. Soloveitchik returns to the subject of tum'at met in Halakhic Man, p. 73: "Death is frightening... death is dreadful only so long as it appears as a subject confronting man. However, when man succeeds in transforming death-subject into death-object, the horror is gone. My father related to me that when the fear of death would seize hold of R. Chayyim, he would throw himself, with his entire heart and mind into the study of the laws of tents and corpse defilement. And theses laws... would calm the turbulence of his soul and would imbue it with a spirit of joy and gladness. When halakhic man fears death, his sole weapon wherewith to fight this terrible dread is the eternal law of the Halakha... Knowledge, by definition, is the subjugation of the object and the domination of the subject."

How would you explain the role of the laws of tum'a according to this passage? b. Compare your answers to the previous two questions.

8. Other than childbirth, can you think of other milestones and points of transition, in Jewish tradition, where the tradition has conjoined to the celebration of the transition elements of sadness, mourning, or sobriety? Which, how, and why?

 

 


 

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