Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:1
Igor Stravinsky famously developed a style of composition that limited the number of notes he could chose from in any piece he penned. In so doing he created a revolutionary approach to tonality and rhythm that has not only endured, but to this day, has continued to influence many other great composers.
Our celebration of Passover recalls another revolutionary change, one that has influenced the song of our people for thousands of years and continues still today. Pesach is our Festival of Freedom, and more than any other Jewish holiday, Passover resonates with our North American sensibilities. ‘Freedom,’ however, is one of those words like ‘justice’ that we all use, and yet means different things to different people. What is freedom in Jewish terms?
Surprise! Part of the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion. The verses in chapter 16 describe in detail how the festival is to be observed within the context of the sacrificial cult. It makes sense to read these verses on the last day of Pesach. Yet, our portion also contains a full chapter and then some of commandments that seem to have no connection to Pesach: laws about the tithing system and the sabbatical year.
Why did the sages want us to read all of these verses rather than just those dealing with Passover on this day? For that matter, why does Torah place these verses right before the laws of Passover?
There is a link between the tithe, the sabbatical year and Pesach. Freedom does not mean that we can just do whatever we wish; that is the way to anarchy. Free societies are predicated on the concept of mutual responsibility, meaning we have to balance our own wants and needs against our responsibilities as community members. When we do this, the hierarchies of power are flattened and we all become significant contributors to the welfare of our community.
This is the paradox of freedom: free nations must be governed by law, and those laws by definition place limits on our freedom. Stravinsky, overwhelmed by the choices before him imposed limits on the material he could use for composition, and thereby became free to create with genius.
So Torah commands that we give 10% of what we have each year as a tithe to support the needy (which by the way also includes the Levites, who in the interest of creating balances of power and flattening the hierarchy, are forbidden from owning their own property). And Torah commands us to free those who have sold themselves into slavery and to forgive the debts we are owed during the Sabbatical year.
True freedom can only be created collectively, mutually, cooperatively. “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh BaZeh - All of Israel, each is responsible for the other!” (Talmud Bavli, Shavuot 39a). This is the freedom proclaimed and celebrated at our seders. When Passover comes to an end, let’s not merely feast on bread. Freedom’s call requires action from us all, and the land of promise beckons.
Passover is the Festival of our Freedom, so named because during the 10th and final plague the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites as the Egyptian first born died. We who observe this Festival know the story well, yet there is a detail in the text we often ‘pass over’ – and by doing so, we miss one of the most important lessons of the holiday:
Moses summoned all of the elders of Israel and said to them, “Draw forth or buy for yourselves sheep for your families and slaughter the Passover sacrifice. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse it in the blood that is in the basin and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, anyone from the entrance of your house until morning.” (Ex. 12:21-2)
Not going outside while the angel of death is around certainly makes sense. Yet, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik offers a deeper interpretation. What does the oppressed slave want at the moment of freedom more than anything? Revenge, answers Soloveitchik, revenge through violent uprising against his or her oppressors.
In Judaism the end never justifies the means, but rather, the opposite holds true. The means actually influence the end. If during our first night of freedom we followed the brutal path of revenge, then what would our future have been? Soloveitchik writes: “On the night of freedom, the slaves performed the movement of withdrawal, of recoil, of self-defiance and self-limitation.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Ex. 12:22)
One of the great gifts of Passover is the proclamation of freedom, but the secret sauce is a ‘playbook’ with lessons to help us stay truly free. As a first step, we must practice self-discipline, and restrain our base desires. Our forbears had to stay home rather than seek revenge, and today we deny ourselves the pleasure of chametz, of leavened bread – usually a staple at our celebrations. When we cultivate self-control in a Jewish context, we cultivate our moral lives. This is the first prerequisite for the development of free and just communities.
As for the rest of the playbook – well, you’ll just have to come to seder to find out!
Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Life is messy. Really messy. Last week in Tazria, we took an excruciatingly detailed look at some of the mess. This week, in Metzorah, the fun continues, only this time the focus is on how we can respond.
Cleaning up the mess (specifically various forms of ritual impurity as expressed through skin disease, house mold or bodily discharges) falls under the purview of the priests. While we no longer follow the detailed instructions for the priestly purification rituals in our lives today, there is still much we can learn from these portions – if we pay attention to the details.
For example, five times in our portion (once in regard to household discolorations and four times in regard to bodily discharges) the text specifies that the ritual impurity lasts only until nightfall (Lev. 14:46, 15:6, 8, 10 and 11).
It may not seem like it, but there is some gold buried in these verses. On the surface, these two portions feel ‘clinical’ in a medical sense – symptoms are described and treatments are ordered. However, there is no way that the onset of evening could possibly have any impact on a medical condition, or household molds the way we understand them. Even more, the text specifies that the problem is one of tumah of ritual impurity, not of illness or disease. So what we are dealing here is spiritual in nature, not merely physical. The most commonly held interpretation comes from Maimonides, who played with the vocabulary of the portion to connect the metzorah, the person afflicted with the ‘spiritual-skin-malady’ with the act of motzi shem ra – of slander. The physical deformations were a manifestation of the spiritual damage done by the act of slander, and healing required both a quarantine and priestly ritual to repair the damage and reintegrate the sinner back into the community.
The references to the evening purification add another layer of meaning. The Talmud teaches that there are two kinds of purity in operation here: tahar gavra (the purity of the man) and tahar yoma (the purity of the [new] day). (Berachot 2a-b) If we understand the maladies of Tazria and Metzorah to be the spiritual result of our wrongdoing, then the only way back to a state of purity is by going through a process of teshuvah, of regretting, correcting and changing our behavior. Perhaps tahar gavra is about our own internal process of teshuvah, and about our attempts to make amends. However, the day or days in which we have not completed that process are stained, they are incomplete because during them our wrong actions remain uncorrected. Tahar yoma is literally a new beginning, a new day, one that is ‘clean’ from our past. For there to be tahar yoma, we need to have changed to the point where not only have we done our best to right our wrong, but we have committed to never repeat the mistake.
We may not have or even want these rituals anymore, but we have all made mistakes, and we all have regrets. The pursuit of tahar gavra and tahar yoma help us to make sure that tomorrow can be better than today.
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
My running joke (for years now) has been to stand before my congregation and begin each sermon with the words: “this week’s Torah portion just happens to be one of my favorites!” Most of the time, I really mean it. Almost every parasha is one of my favorites.
Then there is Tazria.
With its intense focus on ritual purity and impurity following bloody, oozy, or pus-filled emissions from childbirth and skin disease, what do we make of Tazria?
A little disclaimer before writing anything else: Tazria is, indeed, to my great surprise, becoming one of my favorites. Here is one reason why.
Early on in the portion, during the description of blood flow following childbirth, is the command for baby boys to be circumcised on the eighth day. (Lev. 12:3)
Circumcision remains one of the most primal and difficult mitzvot we observe. In Hebrew, it is referred to as berit milah – literally ‘cutting the covenant.’ This is the only way for a boy to enter the covenant. Girls, according to the tradition, are already perfect, and no procedure is necessary to change their covenantal status, but not so boys. There are many valid feminist critiques of the distinction made between boys and girls this way, and perhaps that will be the topic for a later blog.
For now, however, I can’t stop thinking about the bris of my son - fourteen years ago.
Make no mistake. For both my wife and I, his circumcision was a SACRIFICE. Never mind that we Jews have been doing this for thousands of years. Never mind that we had hired a mohelet who was a board certified pediatric surgeon. As a mom, Shauna struggled to even be in the room, and truth be told, when the mohelet offered me the scalpel to make the cut myself (traditionally the father’s obligation, now usually passed along to the mohel) – I almost passed out.
We, as parents, were making a commitment. It meant something. And while I do not advocate for a similar surgical procedure for girls, I miss the level of commitment that comes from a naming ceremony compared to a bris.
A legend: the evil Roman Governer Tyranus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God hates the uncircumcised, why does He [sic] create man in an uncircumcised state?” Rabbi Akiva answered: “Does the earth yield bread?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria 5 - summarized - full text below)
What did Akiva mean? It takes effort to ‘bring forth bread from the earth.’ And if making bread requires such effort, then chal v’homer, how much the more so does the creation of a sanctified, covenantal life?
The question is not ‘in what state are we born?’ but ‘what will we do with the life we have been given?’
Complete Text of the Midrash:
Tyranus Rufus to Akiva: "Whose works are better, those of God or of man?"
Akiva: "Those of man."
Tyranus Rufus: "But look at the heavens and the earth! Can a human being make anything like that?"
Akiva: "Creating heaven and earth is beyond human capacity. Give me an example drawn from matters that are within human scope."
Tyranus Rufus: "Why then do you practice circumcision"
Akiva: "I knew you would ask this question. That is why I said in advance that the works of man are better than those of God."
Akiva then placed ears of corn and cakes before the governor.
Akiva: "The unprocessed corn is the work of God. The cake is the work of man. Is it not more pleasant to eat cake than raw ears of corn?"
Tyranus Rufus: "If God really wants us to to practice circumcision, why did He not arrange for babies to be born already circumcised?"
Akiva: "God gave the commands to Israel to refine our character."
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras