If you were to glance with a jaded eye at the subjects covered in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria — childbirth, leprosy, impurity — you might miss an inspired progression.
Last week’s reading (Shmini) took place on the eighth day (bayom ha-shmini) of the priestly preparatory initiation. After an entire week of purifying themselves to serve as kohanim, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by fire from God right there in the sight of the entire nation, and their corpses must be gingerly carried off by their brother priests.
This week’s portion, by contrast, begins with childbirth and its concomitant impurity, but on the eighth day, the male child is circumcised — removing the impurity.
The same eight-day period that begins in purification and ends in death (last week), begins in impurity (at birth) but finally winds up in the complete opposite, in purity, at the time of circumcision. Why this contradiction?
Rabbi Jacob Leiner of Ishbitz, in his Beit Ya’akov, recalls the story from an early rabbinic collection called Midrash Tanchuma, wherein the Roman senator Turnus Rufus (Quintus Tineius Rufus) argues with Rabbi Akiva about the relative value of God and man.
Presenting Akiva with stalks of grain and a finished loaf, Turnus Rufus tries to convince the sage that while God made the grain grow, human beings were superior, because they converted the inedible wheat stalks into the yummy baguette!
Rabbi Akiva deftly turns the Roman’s argument on its head by answering that God made the bread in potential while allowing human beings the honor of participating in the realization of the bread that was hidden within the wheat.
So too, argues Rabbi Leiner (following other halachic sources), the necessity for brit milah (covenant of circumcision) after a week enables human beings to participate in their own self-improvement — not merely a commandment from God, but a gift of agency in their own perfection.
In a similar vein, we read the special maftir section, “Ha-Chodesh” [Exodus 12:1-20], where God points out the new moon of the month of Nisan, declaring that this shall be the “head of all months for you,” becoming the new year for the Torah and for all biblical texts.
Because we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem, nor the Sanhedrin (high court) that resided there, and thus cannot declare the new month based on witnesses testifying there, we must now rely on calculations to declare the date of the new month, squaring the lunar year with the solar, and whether or not an extra month needs to be added to create (as we have done this year) shana me’uberet (a “pregnant” year of 13 lunar months). This year’s month of Nisan thus follows the “isha ki tazria” (a woman who becomes pregnant) of the double Adar we’ve just concluded.
The Meshech Chochmah (Rabbi Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk) explains that we rely on calculations not because we are better at math than our ancestors in Temple times, but because we (sadly) lack vision, the ability to see the new emerging from the dried husk that surrounded it.
Rabbi Israel, the Ba’al Shem Tov, writes about the beginning of parshat Tazria that when the Torah says “Isha ki tazria ve-yalda zachar (when a woman conceives and bears a son),” it is not only talking about how the biological process works, but that there is a spiritual process that goes on, as well.
After all, this verse speaks of the woman conceiving (“giving forth seed”) before she gives birth, a process that the Baal Shem Tov sees as exemplifying “it’areruta de-letata (initiation from below).”
In other words, what happens depends, in part, on who started the ball rolling.
If the exodus from Egypt had been a totally divine fiat, with initiation only from above in Heaven, the result may have been different. But, as is so clearly portrayed in the Passover Haggadah, the Israelites groaned under their heavy bondage and cried out to God, thus initiating the process of the exodus from Egypt, from which they left “be-yad ramah (with high hand).”
When we initiate the process of redemption, it happens in a strong and exalted manner.
The strands of our readings converge!
The process of Tazria, when initiated from among the Israelites, can end up with a world in which we can have a profound and lasting effect.
We thus understand why the blessing we make before eating bread (even matzah!) is “Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — God brings forth bread from the earth,” despite what Turnus Rufus claimed.
It is through the yearning vision of our hearts that we are somehow able to see the baguettes and focaccias and bagels inherent in the seeds and the stalks of wheat that sprout from them. We are God’s partners, ultimately, in bringing about the redemption, the purity, the holiness that lies hidden beneath an outer klippa (husk).
When our child is born, it’s the hopes and aspirations we harbor for its future that bring about the flowering of that life’s potential.
We have two weeks until the arrival of Passover to flip destiny: We must shift our hearts’ focus from last week’s inevitable descent toward entropy and encroaching death that seemed to be what lay in store for us all, to this week’s promise of purity, covenant and redemption, the grandeur hidden in re-experiencing the Exodus, the trees and bushes blooming with soon-to-be-realized baked goods.
Can you not yet see the ultimate redemption? Perhaps it lies just beyond the horizon!