Birth. Death. The former is the opening theme of this week’s Torah reading. The latter begins next week’s double portion. How stark the contrast in just a few chapters of holy writing! It is no surprise that the Torah addresses matters regarding the beginning and end of life. Yet it is interesting that the four Torah portions, Tazria through Kedoshim, read this year as two sets of double portions, explore life and death from the vantage point of impurity vs. purity, exclusion vs. inclusion. The postpartum mother is in an impure state and is forbidden to have contact with sacred objects or to enter sacred space. Her circumstance is one of partial isolation. She is not entirely excluded, but neither she is fully able to partial isolation. She is not entirely excluded, but neither she is fully able to be part of the community. She is off limits even to her own mate. While this certainly allowed her a measure of protection and control over her own body, it is also reasonable to think that the source of seeing a new mother as impure came out of a sense of mystery or even fear, regarding the birth process and its attendant blood and body fluids.
A person determined to be afflicted with certain skin diseases is placed in isolation and excluded from the community. This is a much more complete exclusion than the new mother experiences, but, as with her, a specific period of time must elapse, the ailment must cease to be present and sacrifices must be brought, before the excluded person may fully rejoin the community.
Aaron’s sons having brought an “eish zarah,” “strange fire,” are consumed by a Divine fire (Leviticus Chapter 10), an ultimate act of separation and exclusion. In the aftermath of this horrific event, Aaron must purify himself (and the people) as he resumes his function as a priest. While Aaron is part of the community at large, he is also apart from it, as a function of his status as the high priest. Hillel’s “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community,” (Avot 2:5) may have been said upon considering the difficult task that Aaron faced in performing the national expiation ritual following the tragic death of two of his sons. Aaron, partially excluded, had to find a way to be included.
The first part of the final parashah of this four portion sequence is the most poetic of them all. Leviticus, Chapter 19, teaches us how to be holy-as individuals and as a community. It’s emphasis is on inclusion. It attempts to articulate the behaviors of each individual necessary to create and sustain a community. It moves away from the rituals described in the preceding chapters, instead focusing on ethics and mores. Purification of the person comes about not by offerings or immersion, but by how one lives up to the ideals that God tells us are essential to our humanity.
Living and dying, purity and impurity, part of and apart from, ritual and ethics--all themes that the Torah intertwines as it guides us in our individual and communal lives. No doubt part of its message is to help us understand that the constituent elements of these pairs are not distinct from one other, but are points on a continuum that we encounter throughout our days and years.
The Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet
Cabinet Chair: Les Bronstein
Vice Chair: Frederick Klein
Vice Chair: Larry Kotok
Vice Chair: Steven Lindemann
Vice Chair: Fredi Cooper
Vice Chair: Tina Grimberg
Vice Chair: Jonathan Berkun
Vice Chair: Jack Luxemberg
President: Stuart Weinblatt
Honorary President: Matthew Simon
Director of the Rabbinic Cabinet: Gerald I. Weider
The opinions expressed in Mekor Chaim articles are solely of the author and do not reflect any official position of Jewish Federations of North America or the Rabbinic Cabinet