D’var Tora for Parashat Tazria‘-Metzora
D’var Tora for Parashat Tazria‘-Metzora‘
Degel Yehuda, 3 Iyyar 5777, 28th April 2017
The first question I want to ask is what are these parshiyyot doing here in the middle of Sefer Vayyikra/Leviticus/Torat Cohanim?
At the end of Exodus we read about the construction of the Tabernacle, then came the detailed instructions for the perfomance of the different sacrifices at the beginning of Leviticus, followed by the description of the dedication of the Sanctuary and the installation of Aaron and his sons as priests. This reached a climax with the appearance of “the glory of the Lord before all the people” and for a while we might have though that we were on a roller-coaster of success and achievement. Then suddenly in chapter 10 tragedy struck: Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu offered up what is described as “strange fire” and were immediately struck down by “fire from before the Lord” and died.
At this point God takes a step back, so to speak, and says, “We seem to be losing control here. Let’s set up ground rules and lay down some boundaries.” In kabbalistic terms, “We have been leaning too much in the direction of hesed, love without boundaries; we need to balance it with gevura, rules and limitations.” And from there begins a sequence of sections of the Torah that deal with לֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר – “making distinctions between holy and profane and between pure and impure”. First in the realm of food, then human bodily processes in our parasha, then in next week’s parasha comes Yom Kippur, which is also described in terms of purity: לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם – to purify you from all your sins. And on through forbidden sexual relationships to the climax of the definition of holiness in parashat Kedoshim, “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy”, and so on and so on almost to the end of the book.
At first sight all these distinctions and separations reminded me of the first chapter of the Torah where one of the commonest words is “divide”. God divides the light from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and so on right through the story of creation to the last day when he creates the Sabbath day and makes it holy.
But when I looked more deeply, the distinctions we read about here are different in kind from the distinctions of creation. In creation, God is dividing things which are relatively static and which maintain their nature after they have been divided. In our parasha we are dealing with distinctions in human life which are essentially dynamic, shifting and cycling between purity and impurity.
Our nature as humans is to spread out and conquer new territory. That’s how God created us and how he blessed us: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ – “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it”, but this basic instinct of ours needs to be hemmed in by rules and limitations to prevent us from destroying the world in our quest to dominate it and spread ourselves over it.
We are also short-lived beings compared to the world we live in. As Samuel Beckett writes, “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Birth itself, as we read at the beginning of the parasha, is a source of impurity, and so is death. A dead body is the highest level of impurity – in Rabbinic language אבי אבות הטומאה, the great-grandfather of impurity. Paradoxically, that doesn’t appear here but later in the Torah in parashat Hukkat, but the theme of death echoes in the background throughout our parasha. Last week we read of the death of Nadav and Avihu, and next week’s parasha is Aharei Mot which begins “after the death of Aaron’s two sons”.
I want to suggest that the laws of purity and impurity and all the associated restriction, separation, and isolation in the context of birth and death, eating and drinking, and other human physical processes, provide us with a means to develop awareness of our dual nature as both physical and spiritual beings, of our “animal soul” and “divine soul”, to use kabbalistic terms once more. However, our aim should not be to separate the two, as we see in ascetic, world-denying religions and philosophies, but rather to continue to live in the physical world and strive to infuse our lives here with holiness and purity.
A final thought: as I said above, the parasha is written between death and death, and this year we also read it between death and death, so to speak, between Holocaust Memorial Day last week and Remembrance Day next week. All the Jewish people today are survivors, and we can’t avoid some amount of survivor guilt. How do we deserve to be alive instead of those who perished in the fire? For their sakes and our own, let us strive to do everything in our power to make Israel enter its seventieth year in holiness and in purity, in justice and in truth.