TAZRIA, Leviticus 12:1-13:59
In last week’s parashah, SHEMINI, the Torah set forth TORAS HA-BEHEMAH VE-HA’OF, the laws relating to various kinds of purity and impurity in animals and birds. They came first in the order of creation. This week’s parshah, TAZRIA, begins a series of parshahs that relate to TORAS HA-ADAM, the laws relating to purity and impurity in man, the very crown of creation. Our parshah takes its name from the greatest of all natural, everyday wonders: a woman’s ability to conceive a living child.
THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH
The Midrash states: “We have learned: “What is the form of the embryo when first created? It is similar to a locust: its two eyes are like the two eyes of a fly; its nostrils are like two drops on a fly. Its two ears are like two drops on a fly, and its two arms like two scarlet threads. Its mouth is like a barley seed, its body the size of a lentil. And all its other limbs are contracted inside it like unformed substance (GOLEM). And of this it says, “Your eyes did see my unformed substance (GOLMI)” Psalms, 139:16; Midrash Rabbah Tazria, 14:8).
Says the Talmud (Niddah 30b): Rabbi Samlai taught: To what can the embryo in his mother’s womb be compared? To a folded up writing-tablet placed with his hands on his two temples, his two elbows on his two knees, and his two heels on his two buttocks. His head rests between his knees and his mouth is closed and his belly open. He eats what his mother eats and drinks what his mother drinks. He does not excrete waste lest he kill his mother. And when he goes out into the air of the world, what was closed becomes open, and what had been open is closed. For if not so, he could not live for even an hour. And while in the womb, a light is kindled over his head. With it he gazes and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it says: “When his lamp shone above me” (Job 29:3).
The miraculous entry of the mature embryo into this world in the form of a living baby, embarking on a whole destiny of its own, is accompanied with much physical pain and blood for the mother. By G-d’s decree, the baby, if a boy, must be circumcised with pain and blood on the eighth day, initiating him into the Covenant of Abraham. Peeling off the unclean material ORLAH foreskin (bound up with nature, which was created in seven days), gives him access to the eight level, BINAH, Understanding. This is the level that is beyond nature, as discussed in last week’s parshah, SHEMINI.
A girl has access to that level in virtue of being female and especially through motherhood, with its pains and joys. Together with the boy’s circumcision, motherhood is the first focus of our present parshah, TAZRIA. Immediately after the birth, the mother must adjust to a new level in life with her baby, boy or girl, in hand. She needs time to recuperate from the birth itself. The biblical laws at the beginning of TAZRIA relate to the ritual purification in Temple times for mothers after giving birth. Often questioned is the bird sin-offering which the new mother brings among her other purification offerings. One Midrash says this comes to atone for a sinful thought she may have had at the height of pain in childhood. Another Midrash says that it comes to atone for, “In the heat of sin my mother conceived me” (Psalms 51:7, alluding to Eve’s lust).
The Midrash also states that those women who carefully observe the laws of NIDDAH, purifying themselves as prescribed by the law, will be worthy of giving birth to children who will enter the Covenant of Abraham.
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METZORA Leviticus 14:1-15:33
LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK
It is appropriate that our parshah, METZORA, with its deep lessons about the purity of speech, is always read shortly before or after the festival of Pesach, whose name signifies, “The mouth speaks”. Sefer Yetzirah teaches that the human faculty associated with the month of Nissan is speech. The Seder night, climax of so many arduous preparations, is an exercise in speech: HAGGADAH, “telling”. The story we tell — the story of our people and of our own inner self — is at the furthest remove from self-aggrandizement. The story starts with shame, tracing our descent into the depths of degradation, pain and anguish before our miraculous delivery from Egypt. For this, we glory not in ourselves but only in the Holy One, turning our night of “telling” into one of song and praise to G-d.
During most of the recital of the Haggadah, the MATZAH — the “Bread of Humility” — lies exposed before our eyes. This is to impress upon us that we must take a humble view of ourselves and our place in G-d’s great scheme, for this the key to using our faculty of speech, man’s defining faculty — in holiness and purity. “Not for our sake, O G-d, not for our sake but for Your Name’s sake give glory.!”
Speech is truly a double-edged weapon, a “tree of good and evil” the “taste” of which is literally in our mouths. Words can do so much good — to shine the truth, to encourage, build and strengthen those with whom we live and work… But words can also be used for so much evil — to deceive, to confuse, to hurt, denigrate and destroy. It is when we are puffed up with CHAMETZ, the “leaven” of our own self-importance and rectitude that we are liable to use words aggressively, angrily, without sensitivity. But when we remove the CHAMETZ of self-importance from our hearts in the knowledge that we are G-d’s creation — no more and no less than everyone else — we can learn to use our amazing faculty of speech with wisdom and love. Then we can join G-d as partners in the work of creation and the revelation of His truth. Words literally rule over our lives. Can we rule over the words that leave our mouths? Will we rule with arrogance or with humility?
The METZORA, literally the “leper”, is symbolic of one who abuses his power of speech, being MOTZI-RA: “bringing out evil”. The previous parshah, TAZRIA, presented an elaborate pathology of the diseases of the soul, such as the “leprous” mark of SE-EIS, inflated pride, or BAHERES, the shining white light in which some people constantly seek to present themselves. The first step in the cure for such illnesses of the soul is to receive an objective “diagnosis” from the Kohen-Priest, a clear statement that the mark is TA-ME, impure. Until we name our negative traits correctly, we cannot begin to heal them. Only when we acknowledge the impure for what it is can we take the first step towards purification. As we saw in last week’s parshah, healing of the wounds of the soul requires heart-searching and contrition, which is why the METZORA was sent for a period of into isolation “outside the camp”.
This week’s parshah of METZORA begins with the highly picturesque ceremony with which the healed leper begins his process of purification so as to be able to return to normal life “in the camp” with other people. The ceremony required two sparrows together with a block of cedar wood, red-dyed wool thread and hyssop. One of the birds was slaughtered into an earthenware flask of living water. Then the other bird was taken with the cedar, the red wool and hyssop, and together they were dipped into the blood and water in the flask, which were sprinkled seven times on the leper, after which the living bird was sent free (Lev. 14:4-7.).
Can you imagine how hard it was to catch the sparrows in the first place in order to carry out the ceremony? As cats and anyone else who has ever tried to catch a sparrow all know, it is terribly easy for sparrows to fly away. This is why the Hebrew name of the sparrow is DROR, “freedom”. The very difficulty of catching these birds, which are notorious chatterers, comes to impress upon the METZORA the great importance of catching our speech and chatter BEFORE they fly off. We must learn to take control over what we say, in order to use words intentionally, productively, lovingly, to good effect. Rashi in his commentary on our parshah explains that the wood of the lofty cedar tree was brought “because leprous plagues come on account of arrogance. What is the remedy? The person must lower himself down from his pride like a worm [from whose blood the red dye of the wool thread was derived] and a hyssop” (Rashi on Lev. 14:4).
The use of the two birds in the ceremony is bound up with the double-edged nature of speech, which can be used for either good or evil. The METZORA had to watch as one of the chattering birds was slaughtered in front of his very eyes, teaching him that he must simply kill his evil talk for all time. However, this does not mean that he may not speak at all in future. On the contrary, once he has learned the lesson of humility contained in the cedar, the hyssop and the scarlet thread, the second bird goes free! When we release ourselves from the bonds of pride and arrogance that enslave us, we are freer than ever to explore the great power of pure speech — “over the face of the field”.
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum