It may still be Passover, but our weekly Torah portion is about to redirect our attention to Yom Kippur. Acharei Mot describes the sacrificial service for Yom Kippur as it was thousands of years ago, and although we no longer follow this rite, there is still much we can learn.
So, let’s talk about what’s been on all of our minds lately: oxen and goats.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first modern chief rabbi of Palestine, observed that the Yom Kippur sacrifices contained a unique chattat (sin) offering. During the rest of the year, a chattat offering would be made with a goat. However, on Yom Kippur, the chattat offering must consist of a goat and an ox.
Why does this matter?
HaRav Kook explained that the ox is a symbol of great strength. Oxen were used to cultivate the land and for construction – their effect on human habitation was generally positive. On the other hand, the Hebrew word for goat is se’ir, which shares a root with the verb “to storm and rage.” Kook notes that goats, when they forage, consume not only the leaves but also the roots of plants. When they overgraze they can devastate a land. He notes that both goats and oxen can be used for good, or for bad. Sometimes we need to destroy before we build, and sometimes we can overbuild or over cultivate.
In other words, both constructive and destructive power can be abused or overused. This leads us back to the chattat offering. It makes sense that the more usual sin offering uses a goat, the symbol of our destructive power gone amok. However, on Yom Kippur, when we step back to look at the larger picture of our lives, we also think about those times when we meant well and yet still caused harm. These too require action on our part. We may no longer participate in the sacrificial rites, but we still make the same mistakes, and to be Jewish is to look year-round at how to mend our errors, heal the harm we have caused and bring redemption to our communities.
Perhaps it makes sense after all to read this passage right after Pesach, to remind us that with freedom comes responsibility. As we count the Omer and remind ourselves of our ancestor’s journey from Egyptian slavery to the Revelation at Sinai, perhaps we should also consider our own personal and communal journeys. Why wait until Yom Kippur? Let’s see if we can examine how we are using our freedom now. What are our intentions? When are we working to bring good into our world and when harm? What can we do now to correct our missteps and strengthen our more life-affirming choices?
Redemption, it seems is not a single event in time, but an ongoing process. “It is not up to you to finish the work,” said Rabbi Tarfon, “yet you are not free to avoid it.” [Pirkei Avot 2:16]
Exodus 12:21 – 51; Numbers 20:16 - 25
“And Egypt bore down on the people [of Israel] to hurry to send them off from the land, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.’ And the people carried off their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” [Ex. 12:33-4]
These verses mark the beginning of the Exodus we are commanded to revisit in our collective memory every year.
We know the story from the seder. We know that we are celebrating our freedom from slavery through the power of God. We know that there was not time to let the dough rise, and we eat matzah rather than leavened bread for the duration of the holiday. We use all of our senses at the seder to re-enact the story.
We know it all. Yet, despite the details we communicate year after year, we also miss something important, found in the Hebrew of the verse: “And Egypt bore down on the people to hurry them off from the land…” The Hebrew word for “bore down” is vatechezak, which comes from the verb chazak, meaning “was strong.” This is the same verb used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart which is ironic, because that is why Pharaoh refused to let us go free. While my translation is not as poetic, a more literal rendering of the verse is: “The Egyptians used hard strength to hurry the people off from the land.” A little later, this idea is repeated and intensified:
“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” [Ex. 12:39]
According to the text, the Exodus was not a Hollywood-esque march from slavery to freedom with Moses at the head of the column. We were driven from the land by the Egyptians. Furthermore, we were not expecting to leave – otherwise we would have had provisions at the ready. The seder may be an orderly reenactment, but the original event was anything but.
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik used this passage to teach:
“Genuine geulah, genuine redemption, always comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time when people are ready to give up hope … At that moment, when the crisis reaches its maximum and threatens the very existence of the community, when people begin to give up the geulah suddenly comes and takes them out of the land of affliction. It comes in the middle of the night and knocks on the door when no one expects it, when everybody is skeptical about it, when everyone laughs off the possibility of redemption.” Festival of Freedom, p. 58
Soloveitchik’s “knock on the door” is a nod to why we put out a cup for Elijah and open the door hoping that this year he will be there. According to rabbinic tradition, Elijah will return one day to announce the coming of the messiah, and the beginning of the messianic world to come where the ills of the world-as-it-is will be no more. The legend says that Elijah will arrive either as the Shabbat ends or during a Passover seder. However, there are two conflicting views on what must happen before the messiah actually comes. One view, referenced by Rabbi Soloveitchik, asserts that the messiah will only come when the world has become so dark that things cannot get any worse. The other view says that the messiah will only come when we have made the world so perfect that we no longer need him (or her). The first view can give us hope when the world is pressing in against us, the second inspires us to work towards building paradise here in this world.
Either way, the process is messy.
This year, if the world seems too dark or dangerous, let us look to the future with messianic hope. Or, if we have the strength, then let us determine at our seder tables to take concrete and specific actions to bring our world closer to redemption.
Passover is not a “once upon a time” observance, but a “for all time” celebration.
Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell teaches: “God creates the world through speech, as we also create our own world through the power of our words.” Although parashat Metzorah seems to be about skin disease and household mold on the surface, our tradition has long held that it is really about the power of our words. In the Talmud we learn that the word metzorah is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase: motzi shem ra (“brings forth a bad name”). According to this interpretation, the external manifestations of the metzorah’s disease are a function of a deeper spiritual malady.
What is this malady?
The rabbis teach that every human being is born with a powerful weapon, and with the ability to chose whether to use it for good or for evil. That weapon is our tongue. Rabbi Jack Reimer writes:
“We use our tongues to create thousands of words every day, and every one of these words has the power to harm or to heal, to hurt or to help. Most of us do very little damage with our hands or with our feet. I can’t think of a single time during this last year when I have hurt anyone with my fists or with my feet. But if I am honest, I must admit that I have hurt people many times during this past year with my tongue.”
Part of the problem is that we do not always see the harm we cause with our words. Most of us, at least in theory, understand that the way we use our words can hurt another person’s feelings. We also understand that we can cause more than emotional harm with our words: we can affect someone’s livelihood or, if we testify falsely, can even help to send an innocent person to prison. Sometimes we are aware of the harm we cause, but more often we are not – especially when it comes to the scale and extent of the damage, and who we are hurting. This is where metzorah comes in. Why is the motzi shem ra, the one who brings for a bad name, covered with a clearly visiblescaly skin affliction? Because using malicious language not only harms others, but themselves. Perhaps I can tell when I have hurt another with my words, but am I aware that I am also hurting myself? When we belittle another human being, we damage a part of ourselves. The more we attack others verbally, the more broken we become. The metzorah is a living physical example of the harm we cause ourselves when we hurt others.
The same holds true for a house which has become infected with tzaraat, the malady of the metzorah. Here we see that not only does weaponized language hurt the person being spoken about, and the person speaking, but also those who hear the words. The environment itself becomes toxic, and if it can not be purified, must be destroyed.
Social media and the internet, with all the benefits they bring, have greatly exacerbated the weaponization of language, as have the growth of tribalism and political polarization. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is filled with tzaraat – but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can choose which kind of world we create.
Now more than ever I pray that we will heed the last words in the Amidah, and “guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile.”
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Tazria scares me. It always has.
It is the rare person indeed who gets excited at the prospect of reading about oozy or bloody bodily emissions, but that is the topic of our parasha this week. Even more, the opening verses appear to be blatantly misogynist, adding another layer of deep discomfort to our contemporary sensibilities. Yet, as Rabbi Ron Segal asks, “when have we ever benefited from avoiding difficult challenges?” So, let’s look at the opening verses, unfiltered:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean (tamah) seven days; shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification (taharah) has been completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean (tamah) two weeks as during her menstruation and she shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for sixty-six days.” [Lev. 12:1-5]
This is what the Torah teaches?
How could childbirth, the closest a human being can ever get to imitating the creative nature of God, result in a condition of ritual impurity or uncleanliness in the mother? And why is the state of impurity/uncleanliness twice as long when the mother gives birth to a girl rather than a boy?
Part of our problem, but only part of it, is a result of translation. Tazria is an exploration of two states of being which in Hebrew are called tumah and taharah. Translating these words into English is challenging. Tumah is commonly understood to mean “impurity,” “defilement,” or “unclean.” Taharah is seen as the opposite. Read this way, the time after childbirth seems like a sentence, doubled for a daughter.
However, there is another way to translate these words as they relate to the sacrificial cult. Taharah is the state of being which permits one to enter the Temple precincts. Tumah is the state of being which does not permit one to enter the Temple precincts. Why does this distinction of one’s state of being matter? First, we must understand that there is a halakhic (Jewish legal) principle that one who is engaged in one mitzvah is exempt from the others. In some cases the first mitzvah is considered so important that one is prohibited from the performance of the others until the primary task is completed.
Judith Antonelli takes this idea and applies it in the most startling way, inferring that the mother bonding with her newborn is a mitzvah which takes precedence over the rest. She notes that there have been studies which demonstrate that mothers pay more attention to baby boys than to baby girls, picking them up and talking to them more, and breastfeeding them longer. While this could just be an example of baby boys being more aggressive and getting more attention, she doesn’t stop there. She writes:
“Perhaps, however, it is one of the more insidious results of male supremacy — that women themselves internalize the value of male superiority and end up perpetuating it, often quite unconsciously, through different ways of relating to sons and daughters. (Similar research has also demonstrated that favoritism is shown to boys by teachers in classrooms and nurses in maternity wards.)”
This leads her to conclude that the passage does not devalue girls but does the opposite. To counteract our pre-existing cultural gender bias, the mother is given twice as much time to bond with newborn daughters than sons, because they need it. So important, so holy is this time of maternal bonding, that all other ritual obligations are removed – even going to the Temple to commune with God. Seen in this way the tumah following childbirth is not a punishment, but a sacred privilege.
For what could possibly be more important than the well-being of our children?
 Judith S. Antonelli, “Postpartum Peace,” in In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Landham, MD: Jason Aronson Press, 1995): 268.
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