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."
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:3
Recently, I learned that my favorite modern Hanukkah song was a personal manifesto of Jewish identity. For years, I have sung “Light One Candle” by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) without really understanding Yarrow’s intent, which takes us far beyond the celebration of Hanukkah. “Don’t let the light go out!” is the repeated refrain, and as I sung it again last week (just for kicks) I was immediately reminded of Tzav.
“A perpetual fire shall burn upon the altar. It shall not go out.” (Lev. 6:6)
Peter Yarrow is not a religious Jew, but he is an ethical and cultural Jew – and he chose the words “don’t let the light go out” as a central concept that reflects his identity as a Jew.
This truly takes my breath away. It begs the question, in an age when the Temple no longer stands and sacrifices are far in our distant past, what is the light for us today? What is the fire that, as a nation of priests, we must continue to feed? We will each answer the question in our own ways. For now, at the very least, we can enjoy listening to Yarrow’s answer.
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