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Thursday, March 27, 2014

In Service: Life and Death and the Torah Portion of Tazria

In honor of Anat bat Miriam on the birth of her baby boy. In memory of Miriam bat Messod, Sarah Channah Bat Mordechai, and Chanah Leah M., who passed away this week.

This week's Torah portion begins with a discussion of the ritual impurity a mother incurs when giving birth, and then turns to the spiritual impurity known as tzara'at. This impurity could affect a person's house, one's clothes, and even one's body. When the body was affected, it required a period of personal exile, until the person was deemed pure by the Kohen. The Kohen was also the one to determine whether the person was impure to begin with.

An obvious question arises as to the connection between the two topics mentioned: the birth of a baby and Tzara'at. While both topics relate to impurity, there appears to be a much deeper connection as well.

The Torah portion begins as follows:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2. Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: ב. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא:

Rashi: If a woman conceives: Rabbi Simlai said: “Just as in the Creation, man was created after all domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds, so too, the law [concerning the cleanness] of man is stated after the law [concerning the cleanness] of domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds.”- [Vayikra Rabbah 14:1]

Rashi states that in Creation there were different levels of created beings, rising from level to level and culminating with the creation of man (woman, actually, since Eve was created even after Adam). The same applies to the laws of impurity: the different levels of creation are discussed separately in the Torah.

The whole idea of the Metzorah (someone who contracted Tzara'at) is about rising from level to level. As we will see in next week's portion, the ritual regarding the purification of the Metzorah is remarkably similar to that of the induction/inauguration of the Kohanim. Just like the priests were "upgraded" spiritually, so too, the Metzorah.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Mashiach is called a Metzorah. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98B) He is constantly climbing from level to level. The Talmud states that one can idenfy him among the other Metzorayim because he wraps one wound at a time, healing himself, improving his predicament one step at a time...

The mother who just gave birth is impure for similar reasons. She is now going through a major transition. In the case of a first child, she goes from being responsible for herself only, to now being primarily responsible for a whole other life, another soul. With every new child, come new responsibilities, a new level of Divine service. This is true even before giving birth, but now it is only at birth this is internalized by the mother on a more conscious level; it is also when the Neshamah, the soul of the baby descends into the body.

Redemption itself and the coming of Mashiach is compared to the process of giving birth. The difficulties we now face are called the "birth-pangs" of Mashiach. The whole world is going through a transition, bringing upon us a temporary state of impurity.

Chassidic thought is famous for the idea of ascent in order to achieve a greater ascent (Yeridah LeTzorech Aliyah). One of the Chassidic masters that most emphasized this idea was Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. Not coincidentally, Rebbe Nachman was born on the week of the Torah portion of Tazria and his Brit-Milah was on the following Torah portion, Metzorah. Rebbe Nachman would say:

When the time comes for a person to rise from one level to the next, he must first experience a fall. The whole purpose of the fall is to prepare for the ascent. Try to understand this and you will realize how determined you must be in order to serve God. No matter how far you fall, never allow yourself to be discouraged. Remain firm and resolute and pay no attention to the fall at all, because in the end it will be transformed into a great ascent. This is its whole purpose.

This applies to all the different ways one can fall. Each person always thinks that his own situation is so bad that this does not apply to him. People imagine it applies only to those on very exalted levels who are continually advancing from level to level. But you should realize that it holds true even for those on the lowest of levels, because God is good to all.


Likutey Moharan I, 22 ("Daily Dose of Rebbe Nachman")


When you're in the middle of the roller-coaster ride of life, it's tough. But when you look back, and see how far you've come, it will be all worth it.

Interestingly, the Talmud also notes that the Metzorah is one of the four kinds of people that are considered "dead." Death itself is a transition. It is the ultimate ascent from level to level, which continues for the soul after life as well.



Even for the body, its descent is only for the purpose of a greater ascent: the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning behind the verse we touched upon at the end of last week:


19With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return."יט. בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב:
El, used in the above verse as a preposition, is also one of G-d's names. The last part of the verse could possibly be read as follows:  "until you return to El (G-d) of the earth, for you were taken from Her, for you are dust (body) and El (soul); you, the dust (body), will return." 

May we all continue to rise, in the ongoing spiral that is life, history, and the Jewish calendar. May we all rise again, in the end of days, and finally be able to reconnect with all those that have already ascended to the higher realms, and who are so sorely missed.


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