Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
“100% of the shots I don’t take, don’t go in.” (Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky)
Twelve scouts were sent to spy out the Promised Land, each of them leaders of their tribes. After forty days they returned to the Israelite camp and reported:
“… We came to the land … And it flows with milk and honey … Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong and the cities are walled … We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we…” [Numbers 13:27, 28, 31]
The panic and chaos that quickly spread through the camp was thorough. Never mind that two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, believed that we were strong enough and urged us forward. Never mind that God had already demonstrated miraculous power in Egypt, at the Reed Sea and at Sinai, and had literally promised this land to us. At the end of the day, the Israelites did what so many of us do – ignored the good to focus on the bad (or in this case, their fear). The result was disastrous. God decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses pleaded for a Divine pardon, and God eventually relented, but with the condition that we wander for forty years in the Wilderness to learn how to be a free people before entering the land. Everyone over the age of 20, except Joshua and Caleb, would die in the Wilderness. A new, untainted generation would inherit the land.
Why did the Israelites panic? And why was God so angry? Let’s go back to the scout’s report:
“We cannot go up against the people for they are stronger than we … And there did we see the Nephilim, sons of the giants … we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31-3)
Giants and grasshoppers? These are exactly the problem.
When we see ourselves as “grasshoppers” it is only a matter of time before we believe that everyone else sees us as “grasshoppers” too – regardless of what they might actually think! The problem with this approach is that it has no basis in reality – it is entirely manufactured in our minds – yet it can lead us to make poor decisions in reality. In modern terms, this story is about the pitfalls and dangers of deep-seated low self-esteem.
When we believe we will fail, we probably will. The problem with “giants and grasshoppers” was that these images brought the Israelites to a place of complete inaction – they just gave up on the spot. This was the cause of God’s anger – their self-doubt was so profound that they could not see the real power they had, and they lost faith in God.
To be clear, the problem was not what the spies saw – it was how they (and the Israelites) perceived what they saw. Caleb and Joshua did not contradict the actual report. They did not say that the land was not hostile, or that the Canaanite cities were not well fortified and defended by fierce warriors. They acknowledged the challenge and the danger, but they also looked at the whole picture. Instead of seeing the Israelites as weak, they recognized that (with the help of God) we were strong. They believed in us, and in God. So, after their colleagues urged inaction, they said: “Aloh na’aleh – let us go up and take possession of it.”
As for the self-defeating belief that everyone around us saw themselves as giants and us as grasshoppers – that was categorically false. In this week’s haftarah portion, the Canaanite woman Rahab tells the next generation of Israelite spies:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you ... As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.” (Josh. 2:9-11)
The Israelites who fled Egypt were bred in captivity, and in a sense, they suffered collectively from what Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls “learned helplessness” – a recurring internal narrative that reinforces powerful self-doubt and feelings of helplessness. Learned helplessness plays a devastating role in anxiety and depression. CBT has shown tremendous success in treating these illnesses by helping patients to use their cognition to recognize that these thoughts are not based in reality. As a therapeutic process, it helps them to develop different, more affirming thought patterns supported by real-life experiences.
In Shelach Lecha, Torah anticipates this approach. Shelach Lecha warns us about the danger of these negative emotions. It inspires us to be like Caleb and Joshua – to use our cognition to overcome our negative emotions so that our emotions do not distort our perceptions. It teaches us to see the world as it is, rather than as what we fear it might be. And as Rabbi Jonathan Saks wrote, it reminds us to: “let faith banish fear.”
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Naso is a smorgasbord of seemingly (but not really) random topics leading up to the consecration of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary): a census of some of the Levitical clans, what to do with ritually unclean people, how to handle accusations of adultery (with the strange ritual of the sotah), the rules and restrictions of the Nazarite and the famous three-part priestly benediction.
This week let’s focus on the nazir – the one who takes the Nazarite vow and pursues holiness in the extreme. The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, literally means, “set apart for God.” The nazir is someone who takes a vow to set themselves apart either for a specific period of time, or for their entire life. Once the vow has been taken, there are three restrictions: they may not cut their hair, drink wine or come into contact with the dead.
If the purpose of being a nazir is to remove all distractions so that the nazir can focus only on God and holiness, then there is a certain logic to these restrictions. Coming into contact with the dead naturally leads us to consider our own mortality. If we are thinking about ourselves, then we are not thinking about God. Similarly, grooming oneself could also be a distraction from God. Plus, the long hair of the nazir would make them easy to spot – alerting others to respect their special status. Finally, drinking wine does not exactly clear the mind. How can we be holy if we are drunk?
Being nazir may lead to an intensification of holiness, but it is an extreme act, and despite its clear depiction in Torah, is rarely if ever seen today. On the contrary, the rabbis ordained that holy days and life cycle celebrations be sanctified with the kiddush (literally “the holy prayer”) over wine.
How can this be? How can drinking wine lead to holiness when the Torah says abstaining from wine leads to holiness?
The rabbis devoted an entire tractate of the Talmud to this question and continued to argue it well into the medieval period. In the end, the consensus suggests that different people require different paths. As a general rule, the rabbis advocated the path of moderation. They understood how an extreme approach to piety could lead to religious extremism. However, they allowed that some people, perhaps because they were spiritually unstable (either on a temporary or permanent basis), needed the rigidity of the nazir’s vow as a spiritual counterbalance.
For the rest of us, the vast majority, they offer a different approach. Rabbi Eliezar HaKappar taught that asceticism is not a path to holiness, but rather is a sin, because wine is a pleasure which comes from God’s creation. He wrote: “from this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life.”
Not that he was a Hedonist, far from it! The rabbis were, after all, passionate about moderation. Rather, Eliezar recognized that every pleasure of life is a gift from God. For us, pursuing a life of holiness does not require withdrawal from the world, but the opposite. Our task is to orient ourselves towards God through gratitude, recognizing the Divine in all the good which surrounds and permeates our lives. So, eat, drink and enjoy! And offer thanks to the One who so generously made every bit of it possible.
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Once, my clergy assistant of years gave me one of my favorite birthday gifts ever: a coffee mug proudly emblazoned with the seal of the “National Messy Desk Society.”
I love this mug, because it perfectly describes my self-created work environment. Generally speaking, I know where everything on my desk is, but periodically, the mess grows so much that I can no longer be confident that I am on top of everything. That’s when I clean my desk to restore some semblance of order, and neat piles appear for a brief period. The cycle repeats every few months, until after a few years, I need to really clean my desk to the point where the surface is completely cleared. Then, for one glorious day, a sense of perfect order is restored to my office.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar is all about restoring order from chaos. With the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we pick up our narrative right where it ended at the end of Exodus. Since we have spent so much time in Leviticus learning about priestly and holy ideas, we might need a little refresher on hamatzav – the situation:
The Israelites are still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have received the Ten Commandments, survived the Golden Calf, and built the mishkan – the Tent of Meeting where God can dwell in our midst. We have been out of Egypt just over a year when the Book of Numbers begins. That means that people of Israel, until now, have been a mob of disorganized refugees, exposed to attack from marauders like the Amalekites.
Bamidbar begins with a detailed census, tribe by tribe, of the Israelite men capable of serving in the military, and of the priests of age to serve in the mishkan. The tribes are also assigned specific places in the camp, with the mishkan placed in the center. This creates a protective barrier for the entire camp, and for the Israelites when they are on the move.
By definition, slaves have no control over their lives. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are finally beginning to establish order and control through the census and reorganization in Bamidbar. Never mind that Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness.” We need order most when the world around us seems “wild” or out of our control. So, with proper pomp and circumstance each tribe steps forward to announce the results of its census and to take its place among the free people of Israel. This is a great, even exhilarating moment. And it is absolutely necessary before we can begin the journey to the Promised Land.
Does this mean that the journey will be smooth?
No, not really.
Just as I create a mess on my desk every day, so too the ancient Israelites acted to bring less order and more messiness into their own lives once the journey began.
Not that we should be surprised
We plan, we organize, we create beautiful visions and strategies – and then, as we begin to act on our plans, life gets in the way. We deal. We adjust. We adapt. We reorganize and we try again.
Torah does not teach us that everything will be perfect, or even easy. However, in this week’s parasha, it teaches that we are part of something greater than ourselves – and if we read ahead, that despite the difficulties along the way, one day we will reach the land of Promise.
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Can a Torah commentary start with a Santa story? You decide.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin shares the following:
Jane and her older sister had been fighting a lot this year. Jane’s parents warned her that Santa Clause was watching, and Santa does not like it when children fight.
What does this have to do with the Torah? Everything! B’Chukkotai brings the book of Leviticus to an end. The opening (and shorter section) of the parasha consists of a series of blessings which will come if we follow God’s law. Then the tochecha (the admonition) takes over, detailing a much longer series of devastating curses which will result if do not follow the law. According to tradition, these curses are chanted rapidly and “under the breath” (in a soft, hard to hear tone) during a single long reading. We don’t like to listen to the curses, and in some synagogues, it is difficult to even find someone to read them. Yet, there is wisdom in their placement at the end of Leviticus, the book of Torah most concerned with holiness.
B’Chukkotai is not simply about divine reward and punishment, it is about human agency. Rabbi Plotkin shares the story of Jane because it exemplifies why we need this parasha: our actions have consequences, and we are responsible for the choices we make. Put differently, our choices and actions create consequences which we experience regardless of whether we take responsibility or not. So, if we want to have any sort of influence over what comes back our way, we need to take responsibility for choosing well. This is the beginning of Jewish mindfulness as a practice. The more attention we pay to how we make decisions and how we take action in our lives, the more agency we gain over what we do.
However, our responsibility extends far beyond ourselves. The point is not just to act for our reward and to avoid punishment; in the kind of just community Torah commands we also take responsibility for each other. If we see a wrong, we are required to right it. If we witness a crime, we cannot claim to be innocent bystanders. Either we act to stop or at least to report the crime, or we enable the crime to happen.
Whether we like it or not we are responsible – and that means we have the power to bring great pain or great blessing to the world.
As we conclude the book of Leviticus and contemplate how to bring more holiness into our lives, but one question remains: how shall we choose?
Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Behar is the name, and tzedakah is the game. Many of us have grown up equating tzedakah with giving charity, but the word literally means: “doing right.” We give charity when we are moved to help the less fortunate. We do tzedakah because it is how we are supposed to live our lives, regardless of how we may feel at any given time.
Behar begins with instructions for “doing right” for the earth by giving the land a rest, a full sabbath from work every seven years. This is where, I think, the word ‘sabbatical’ originates. Then, it continues on to describe the Jubilee year, as the cornerstone of a system where land (the source of power) can never be permanently sold but must be restored to the family of its original owner every 50 years. Why does this matter? The Jubilee creates a generational reset, so that every generation has the same opportunity for prosperity in the Promised Land.
From here, we move on to a series of additional laws of tzedakah regarding how to look after the poor. There are many words in Hebrew for a poor person: there is oni, and rash and evyon and nitzrach. However, none of those words appear even once in Behar. Instead, we read no fewer than seven different times about achicha. Achicha means “your brother,” and the nice biblical number of seven iterations adds weight to the term.
Torah makes no distinction between the value of ‘poor people’ and ‘rich people.’ Instead, it reminds us that we are all brothers, and we should treat each other accordingly: with respect, dignity and empathy. In giving charity, we might think that we are better off than the recipient, but ‘better off’ is only three letters away from ‘better.’ Framing our actions with this viewpoint can create a separation between the giver and the receiver, and even dehumanize the exchange. Instead, Torah teaches us what to do “should our brother come to ruin.” [Lev. 25:35] It reminds us that tragedy can strike any of us, and that we need each other. Indeed, Behar could very well be a biblical expression of the more modern phrase: “it takes a village.” Indeed, according to the rabbis, even the poorest of the poor are required to give tzedakah.
Behar calls us not only to a life of tzedakah, of doing right, but to create a community of tzedakah, so that we may all enjoy the fruits of the land.
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
The Talmudic rabbis play a game of wits where one says, ‘I can sum up the entire Torah in just seven verses.’ Then another does it in six, and so on all the way down to one. Hillel wins by restating the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not to others – all the rest is commentary.” The Golden Rule, which is to love your neighbor like yourself, comes from this week’s parasha (Lev. 19:18 for those who want to know).
Far be it from me to disagree with Hillel. Yet, if it were up to me, I would pick a different verse – also, it turns out, from, this week’s parashah:
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Lev. 19:2]
This verse is the beginning of a short, incredibly powerful section of Torah called the Holiness Code. And for me, this verse more than any other captures the essence of what Torah teaches. Let’s break it down.
The first part of the verse specifies that this commandment must be spoken to the entire collective of Israel, not just the elders. The Midrashic collection known as Sifra notes that this formulation only occurs for the most important tenets of Torah. So, the first part of the verse exists only to tell us to pay special attention to the second part of the verse: “You shall be holy …”
The English word “holy” is one of those words we toss around like “justice” where we assume that we all agree on what it means, but when push comes to shove, we find difficult to define. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. Unlike its English counterpart, kadosh has a very particular meaning: set apart for God. Shabbat is holy, it is set apart from the other days of the week. Torah is holy, it is set apart from other books.
“You shall be holy” commands us to be set apart as well, just as God is set apart. “You shall be holy” means that we are to follow a higher authority, live to a higher standard rather than merely go along with the status quo. “You shall be holy” teaches us that we are capable of more than we think, it inspires us to lift ourselves above the fray and take the long view. It reminds us that we are capable of emulating our God and that our lives have purpose.
To be a Jew, Torah teaches, is to be holy – to be set apart for God.
On the one hand, nothing could be more uplifting.
On the other hand … oy.
We have suffered so much for being different. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof: “Thank you God for the great honor of choosing me, but once in a while, can't you choose someone else?” Yet, with all of our suffering, we have also brought much light into the world – and we are not done. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is what Torah teaches us we can and must be. How do we do it? The Holiness Code gives us a start with a series of pithy commandments like the Golden Rule. However, even that is not enough. We also need to read the rest of Torah, and then Tanakh [the Jewish bible], and then look to the rabbinic tradition.
Hillel was right: all the rest is commentary. Let’s go and study.
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