In the annual cycle of Torah readings, we are now in the Book of Leviticus. What are we to make of these chapters and verses? Most of us feel a bit squeamish when we read about skin disease, seminal emissions, and animal sacrifices, which entail pouring, splattering, and sprinkling blood. What could this possible have to do with us and our lives in the 21st century?
Not only that, but there is also the problem of how women are treated. In parshat Tazria, we are told that women are tamei after childbirth. Tamei is a difficult word to translate. Often it is translated as “unclean” or “impure,” both of which have negative connotations. Sometimes I have seen it translated as “contaminated,” which also is problematic. I prefer to think of tamei as “not ready.” A person who is tamei is, for a variety of reasons, not in a state of readiness to engage in ritual practices or participate fully in the life of the community.
The person who is tamei is kept outside the camp, away from others. But surely this is not a punishment. A woman who gives birth is helping to ensure the continuity of the People and is fulfilling the commandment pru u’rvu — be fruitful and multiply. Therefore, it would make no sense to punish a new mother. Rabbi Shai Held suggests instead that it is to protect mother and child. In the time of the Torah, and really until quite recently, childbirth was extremely dangerous. The risk of death was great for both mother and newborn.
In much of the world, this still is still true. Maternal and infant mortality in childbirth is still very much a reality. Rabbi Held believes that our blessing of relatively safe childbirth carries with it an obligation to ensure that others have safe and effective medical care during pregnancy and childbirth. He writes, “We are called to help make death in childbirth as distant a memory as is humanly possible.”
His use of the world “called” jumped out at me because Congregation Beth Hatikvah has chosen hineini as our theme for this year. Hineini means “Here I am” and is the response to a call, whether external or internal. Rabbi Held is suggesting that if we are blessed to live in a country that has excellent healthcare and to be part of a demographic that has a low rate of maternal and infant mortality, it is not enough to just enjoy our good fortune. We are called and have an obligation to help others to achieve that same level of safety.
Much of the Jewish community in the United States enjoys the privilege of high-quality education, ample employment opportunities, safe neighborhoods, healthy food, clean water, choices about where we live and how we spend our time. When I mention these privileges, people often ask, “Am I supposed to feel guilty?” Or “Am I supposed to give up what I have? After all, I or my parents or grandparents worked hard to achieve what we have.”
The wisdom of the Torah provides a way to think about this. God says to Abraham: “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.” I had always thought of this as descriptive. God says: “Hey, Abe, here is what’s going to happen — I will bless you and then you will be a blessing.” But now I realize it is actually a commandment. You do not have a choice. If you are blessed, you have to also be a blessing to others. The way Rabbi Held frames it is: “Jewish theology insists that those of us who have received gifts are intended to pass them on. We are intended to be channels for blessing and goodness rather than receptacles.”
Judaism gives us a counterbalance to the greediness and individualism in our society. The Torah reminds us that it is not enough to enjoy our blessings; we have to help ensure that others also have those blessings. I wonder if our blessings might call to us. There are so many blessings we take for granted — clean water, access to education for girls, relative safety from violence. We cannot do everything, but perhaps we could hear the call of one of these blessings and do whatever is humanly possible to make that a reality for others. Perhaps our blessings could call to us in such a way that we respond hineini. Here I am, ready to be a blessing.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.