Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Tazri'a - M'tzora
Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33
April 24, 2004 3 Iyyar 5764
Conspicuous miracles move us more swiftly and deeply than inconspicuous miracles. The latter elude our detection because they are an everyday occurrence. The commonplace numbs our sense of wonder, even as the daily experience of grandeur strips us of awe and radical amazement. It is surely one of the functions of religion to keep our wellsprings of wonder from running dry.
On the fifth of Iyyar, Jews and Israelis will once again join to celebrate the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, without a doubt, one of the most conspicuous miracles in all of Jewish history. The unprecedented devastation of the Holocaust did not end the millennial saga of the Jewish people. A new center of gravity for a traumatized world Jewry arose in the very same land where once two Jewish commonwealths had flourished in succession. Bound as well by language and religion to its predecessors, the third Jewish commonwealth was quintessentially modern and western in its embrace of democracy, the rule of law and the importance of higher education. Religious and secular Jews agreed that Israel augured the dawn of national redemption. Some fifty-six years later, the grandeur of that achievement and the power of that hope remain undiminished, no matter how problematic the compromises a harsh environment has exacted.
But it is of the inconspicuous miracles which surround us that I care to speak. How few of us are animated by the spirit of William Blake!
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower;
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
For the religious temperament, the expanses of space and time manifest themselves in miniature. Our parashah opens with a brief discourse on birthing, not a state or nation, to be sure, but a child. Ritual gives voice to reality. Giving birth renders the mother impure; in the case of a boy for thirty-three days, in the case of a girl for sixty-six. The loss of bodily fluids, especially blood, accounts for the mother's impurity. Every delivery skirts the borders of death. The ultimate value of the Torah is life, making its polar opposite, a human corpse, the ultimate source of impurity. The emission of certain fluids like menstrual blood and semen constitute lesser degrees of impurity because their loss is regarded as a temporary diminution of life. Hence, the mother of a newborn child was excluded from the precincts of the Tabernacle or Temple.
Impurity, then, is a measure of danger. The extended state of impurity of the postpartum mother expressed a deep awareness of the risks of childbirth. Before the advent of modern medicine, all too many women shared the fate of Rachel who died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Every successful delivery, from which mother and child emerged healthy, was deemed an act of God. That is why the birthing mother at the end of her ordeal brought a burnt offering to the Tabernacle as well as a sin offering (12:6-7). Whereas the latter signified the end of her impure state, the former embodied a joyful gesture of thanksgiving to the Almighty for an instance of unmerited grace. Despite a planet overrun by humans, I still find the birth of every child a mystery wrapped in holiness, which is why I have held onto the words of the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, written more than a quarter century ago:
Four billion people on this earth,
But my imagination is the way its
always been: bad with numbers.
It is still moved by particularity.
The birth of an infant prompted the rabbinic imagination to envision God as an artist without peer. Appropriately, it selected a verse from Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving after God had ended her state of barrenness. As she returned Samuel, her young son to the Tabernacle at Shiloh for a lifetime of service to God, she broke forth in exultation:
My heart exults in the Lord;
I have triumphed through the Lord.
I gloat over my enemies;
I rejoice in Your deliverance.
There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no rock like our God. (I Samuel 2:1-2)
The midrash seized upon the common biblical word "tzur," rock, in the final clause for its move, a word familiar to us from the medieval Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tzur," The Redoubtable Rock of My Salvation." It is also the only appellation for God to appear in Israel's declaration of independence: "With confidence in the Rock of Israel [Isaiah 30:29], we affix our signature in testimony to this declaration..". In Hebrew the words for rock and artist, tzur and tzayar, are closely related, though tzayar is a formation that is post-biblical. The verbal resemblance allows the midrash to reread Hannah's praise of God to say, "There is no artist like our God." And with that shift, the midrash spins a web of comparisons that highlights God's uniqueness. The creation of a child is an incomparable work of art. Thus, a mortal artist paints on a hard wall, while the more challenging material used by God is the liquid in the mother's womb. Unlike God, mortal artists cannot imbue their portraits or statues with life. Nor do they offer praise to their creators. Rather, it is the artists who lavish their handiwork with encomiums. In contrast, the products of God's creativity fill the world with hymns of praise to God. Finally, the fetus emerges from a single drop, whereas mortal artists need an abundance of paints and colors to produce their human likeness. In short, the birth of a single healthy child dwarfs the artifice of the greatest of human artists (Tanhuma, Tazri·a 2).
The celebration of God's artistic prowess, moreover, invests the flesh with sanctity. The body is no less holy than the soul. To make it the object of our attention does not reduce us to crass materialists, but merely enlarges the canvas of God's presence in our lives. The litany of berakhot (praises for God's beneficence) with which we start each day, sustains our wonderment at the sundry miracles that reactivate our dormant bodies. We take nothing for granted. A disposition of gratitude shrinks our sense of self-importance, enabling us to appreciate the promise of every single moment.