Parshat Tazria Hachodesh 2019
This month is the first of your months, it will be the first in the count of your years. Here begins our history. So much so, in fact, that Rashi suggested
that the Torah should have started here, rather than with Bereshit. This month of Nissan also marks spring and the rebirth of the earth. Thus, despite the reluctance of winter to depart for other climes, there is no denying that spring has sprung. Just look at the trees beginning to bloom, the flowers in gay profusion, the longer hours of sunlight.
Parshat Hachodesh celebrates the beginning of our people as a people, not just an overgrown family, not just scads of slaves, but a cohesive (well, allegedly cohesive) group adhering to specific beliefs and rules.
Parshat Hachodesh encapsulates many of the important elements of Judaism. We have the call for action, symbolism, long-term commemoration of the event and the call to explain and transmit the story to our children. The call to action involves taking a lamb, tethering it at home for four days and then slaughtering and grilling it – mundane actions that a short while earlier would have been unthinkable.
The symbolic act the Israelites are commanded to perform is to daub lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes. We’ll return to the blood symbolism later. Here, we see the act of marking your home to differentiate it from non-Israelite homes for the good – in total contrast to yellow stars and other markings which were employed to differentiate Jews for punishment over the centuries.
The instructions for eating the Pascal lamb are also informative. This was a night of togetherness, the whole extended and expanded family of Jacob acting in unison. If one family unit was too small to eat a whole lamb it had to join with another one. All the families were like one. They were also to be dressed and packed to leave. Packing and leaving have, unfortunately, been our hallmarks for hundreds of years. (Arthur Miller wrote a story in which a Jewish character identifies another Jew – who doesn’t know he is Jewish – just from how he wraps a package!)
But wait, this Passover was not going to be a one-time event. It was to become a tradition to be commemorated every year. And we receive instructions of how to celebrate it. No less important, it is to serve as a learning tool for the children. Because the Torah – from which we also get the word for “teacher” – is a textbook that combines history, laws, instructions and education.
Thus Parshat Hachodesh offers us the elements of history, designated acts, symbolic acts, traditional repetition and teaching the young – elements that have kept us alive through hundreds of years of exile and suffering.
This year, Parshat Hachodesh and the beginning of Nissan fall on the Shabbat of Parshat Tazria, which opens with the rules of ritual purity and impurity pertaining to the beginning of life – childbirth. Even though the parsha deals only with the offerings to be brought to the Kohen after birth, we can hear a baby crying somewhere in the background.
Both Tazria and Parshat Hachodesh deal with blood. As mentioned, the lamb’s blood is a symbol of victory, of uniqueness, of life that will be spared. We can, perhaps, understand it as the pidyon, the redemption: we redeem the lives of our first-born with the blood of the lamb.
Yet, when we read Tazria and the laws of ritual purity and impurity regarding childbirth, we see that blood has the effect of creating impurity. The question has been asked by hundreds of commentators and rabbis – how does childbirth make a woman so impure that she has to bring a sin-offering to mark the end of her impure period?
Of the many answers offered, this one seems to be based in a comprehensible reality. It was proposed by Rabbi Lauren Berkun of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
The pregnant woman, she writes is a “vessel of abundant life.” Following delivery, this powerful presence of life within is lost. Her discharge of life leaves a void and creates the ritual necessity for purification. On a more contemporary note she adds that in light of the vulnerable state of world affairs, each birth brings another fragile, mortal being into the universe, with a new potential for death.
This may help to explain the double period of impurity following the birth of a female child. The baby girl, she says, embodies the potential to one day bear another new life. Each life that is brought into the world will also bring another death. Therefore, the Torah marks the birth of a girl, a future holy vessel for the creation of life, as fraught with twice as much “death symbolism.”
Berkun concludes with the thought that the laws of childbirth and sin offerings may reflect these conflicting emotions. The joy of birth mixes with trepidation, awe with fear, the potential for life with the possibility of death. The laws in Tazria thus reflect both options. We ritually acknowledge our encounters with death, pay our ritual debt (the sacrifice) then step out and immerse ourselves in life again.
As we step into Nissan, the first month of our Jewish year, we look forward with hope for the new year, new lives, and new-old celebrations.