Tazria: The Torah of the New Mother

“Upon the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a purification offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood. This is the Torah of the woman who gives birth to a male or a female. But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a purification offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf and she shall be pure.” (Vayikra 12:6-8)

The woman comes with tattered tunic
stretched across still-swollen belly.

The baby slumbers peacefully
swaddled at his mother’s breast.

Her basket clutched in work-worn hands:
twin turtledoves peep out.

Eyes a-brim in sun-bronzed face,
abashed, she murmurs to the priest.

“We cannot spare a yearling lamb –
with many mouths to feed.”

While the priest speaks soothingly,
compunction fills his heart.

On the phrase, “if she cannot afford a sheep…” the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out that the right to bring a less expensive sacrifice is standard for a number of religious obligations. Otherwise, poor Israelites would be deprived of expiation when they incurred impurity through no fault of their own.

However, in a blogpost on Tazria in 2012, http://www.rebjeff.com/1/category/tazria/1.html, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser takes this issue further. He says that Rashi points to something strange in the order of the text: first we hear about the sacrifice a woman should bring after the birth – a sheep and a bird. This, we learn, is “the Torah of a woman who gave birth.” And what then of the diminished offering of the poor woman who gave birth? The classical answer, says Reb Jeff, is that the offering of the wealthy woman is the ideal — that is the Torah. The Torah acknowledges that there are poor women who give birth who cannot afford the prescribed offering, but that is not how it should be.

Reb Jeff quotes the first Rebbe of Belz, Rabbi Shalom Rokeach,* speaking once on Shabbat Parashat Tazria, before Kiddush. The Rebbe invokes mercy on Israel that they should be blessed with a good livelihood and he cites the verses above. He asks whether the phrase concerning the offering of the poor woman does not belong to the Torah of the new mother. And he answers, “The point is that in truth, the Torah of the woman who gives birth is that she will be able to afford the sacrifice of the wealthy woman – according to the Torah, any woman who gives birth must have her needs met comfortably, but if it should happen sometimes that she has insufficient means, then that is already not Torah!”

Reb Jeff questions whose responsibility it is to ensure that her material and spiritual needs are met. He says, “The Torah seems to say that we should not expect God to provide for her. God has made provisions for her in the case the responsible party fails to do the right thing. Who is the responsible party? It is all of us, of course. As the famous statement from the Talmud declares, “All Israel is responsible for one another” (B. Shevuot 39a).
We can have delightful discussions and arguments about how this should happen. Should the government be responsible for caring for her needs? Should it be the responsibility of private charities to support women’s reproductive health care? Our texts do not say. Yet, there is no ambiguity in our tradition about communal responsibility. It is up to us to make sure that the disgrace of a poor pregnant woman never happens.
We are responsible for each other, particularly for those in need, particularly for those who give life. No woman, regardless of who she is or how she came to be pregnant, should be left without all her needs (and more) met as she brings new life into the world.”

*Belz is a Hasidic dynasty named for the town in Western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The Jewish community there was established there during the 14th century. The town became home to the Hasidic community in the early 19th century. At the beginning of World War II, Belz had 6,100 inhabitants, of which 3,600 were Jewish.
The founder of the dynasty was Rabbi Shalom Rokeach (1779–1855) also known as the Sar Shalom. He was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. The Seer was a disciple of Rabbi Elimelech Lipman of Lizhensk, author of Noam Elimelech. Rabbi Elimelech was a disciple of the Rebbe Dov Ber, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, the primary disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Shalom Rokeach was inducted as Rabbi of Belz in 1817. He personally helped build the city’s large and imposing synagogue, which was dedicated in 1843. It resembled an ancient fortress with 3-foot-thick walls and could seat 5,000 worshippers. It stood until the Nazis invaded Belz in late 1939. Though the Germans attempted to destroy the synagogue first by fire and then by dynamite, they were unsuccessful. Finally they conscripted Jewish men to take the building apart, brick by brick.
Like almost all of the other groups originating in Poland, the Belzer community was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. Some Hasidic followers from other communities joined Belz after the war following the deaths of their rebbes. Belz, like Ger and Satmar, was comparatively fortunate in that its leadership remained intact and survived the war, as opposed to many other Hasidic groups whose leaders perished. The Belzer community today is headed by the fifth Belzer rebbe (since 1966).

Shemini: The silence

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu…offered alien fire before the Lord which He had not commanded them…and fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, thus they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said, Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Vayikra 10:1-3.)

When you lifted your hands
and blessed the people,
did you see your older sons
from the corner of your eye?
Did you dream of blessings
they would bestow,
of priestly duties
they would fulfil?
Before your eyes
they were consumed by fire,
like the offerings
they had learned to bring near.
You heard your brother
speak to you,
murmuring words
– were they solace?
But from you: no agonised cries;
no accusations,
no questions –

The commentators wrestle with the circumstances of the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons. However, an even more arresting mystery seems to be Aaron’s response to this tragic loss: “vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent.” The Torah does not usually call attention to someone not speaking. The Etz Hayim commentary addresses the unusual significance of Aaron’s silence, asking whether he accepted God’s decree without protest; whether his anguish was too great for him to articulate; whether he was tempted to burst out in anger at the unfairness of the blow that had devastated his family but somehow managed to hold back. The Etz Hayim says that perhaps the text is hinting that “sometimes there are more possibilities – and more power – in silence.”

In a commentary on Shemini written in April 2000, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz points out that Aaron neither protested, as Abraham had before him, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Bereishit 18:25) nor did he cry out like Jacob when he believed Joseph had been killed, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol!” (Bereishit 37:35). Rabbi Berkowitz wonders why Aaron was silent. He brings the commentaries of several exegetes:

Rashi understands “vayidom Aharon” literally as “and Aaron was silent,” which he interprets as submissive acceptance, for which he derives that Aaron was rewarded (based on Vayikra Rabbah 12). In this view, although Aaron cannot comprehend God’s ways, he does not question or challenge them.

Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, also reads this phrase as signifying Aaron’s acceptance but brings a sense of Aaron struggling before he reaches equanimity. Rashbam understands “vayidom” in the context of Ezekiel: God declares to the prophet, “O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence; but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow. Moan softly; be silent in mourning the dead …” (Ezekiel 24:16-17). Though the Israelites naturally want to mourn the tragedy about to strike them, God commands them to refrain from any expression of public mourning and so they are silent. Viewing Aaron’s behavior in this context, Rashbam depicts Aaron as far less accepting than Rashi does. Indeed, Rashbam describes Aaron’s inner turmoil, saying, “Aaron refrained from that which he had wanted to mourn and to cry over.” He suggests that Aaron suppressed his feelings for the sake of God and for the sake of the whole community.

Ramban brings two possibilities. One is that “vayidom” means “he became silent,” – in other words, first Aaron cried out and then he fell silent. Here Ramban posits that Aaron did express his grief and then lapsed into a contemplative silence, not necessarily an accepting one, rather a questioning one in which he struggled to comprehend God’s unfathomable ways. Ramban’s second theory is that “vayidom” here means, “he ceased,” which he derives from Aichah 2:18, “…let not the apple of your eye cease.” Ramban suggests that Aaron ceased to shed tears. This fits with his first suggestion and reflects his belief that Aaron did cry over his sons’ deaths. Only here, he suggests that the silence denotes that Aaron has moved past his grief into acceptance and then ceases to mourn.

These commentaries present a range of possible interpretations of Aaron’s silence on the deaths of his sons, from total and complete acceptance to a painful cry and mild protest. Rabbi Berkowitz comments: “Ramban’s explanation is most appealing to me: he recognizes that mourning must precede the acceptance of a loss of someone so dear to one’s soul. Moreover, expressing one’s emotion at such a time is not only human — it is profoundly Jewish, even central to our laws of mourning. A house of mourning becomes a safe space to speak of the pain of loss. There, the community comes together, bringing God’s Presence back into the life of the mourner.”

Rabbi Berkowitz quotes an essay by Rabbi Milton Steinberg entitled, To Hold with Open Arms: “Given God, everything becomes more precious … [but] it is easier for me to let go. For these things are not and never have been mine. They belong to the universe and the God who stands behind it. True, I have been privileged to enjoy them for an hour, but they were always a loan due to be recalled. And I let go of them more easily because I know that as parts of the divine economy they will not be lost.”

Purim: No prophets in the marketplace

Prophets rail no more
in the marketplace,
pitching God’s word.
The people are distant,
out of range of His call.

God woos us no longer,
shielding His face.
He affords us the freedom
to act, or not,
for justice and peace.

When the enemy looms –
the hate-filled Haman
bent on destruction –
will Esther, likened to dawn
after night’s darkest hour,
bring forth the light?

In his book The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, Yoram Hazony asks, “What can be the meaning of a book in the Bible in which there is no mention of God, however so incidental, if not to inform us, two thousand years before Nietzsche, that the evidence of God’s actions in the world has ceased – that the earth has been unchained from its sun, that it has grown darker, colder. For this much, one has no need for [the book of] Esther, which, coming as it does a century after the reduction of Jerusalem, can hardly seem more than a bitter redundancy.” Hazony points out that the departure of God from among men was foretold, both in Devarim 31:17 (And My anger will flare up against them and I will abandon them and I will hide My face from them. They shall be ready prey and many evils and troubles will befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us….”) and by Jeremiah later on, speaking of the demise of Jerusalem, saying that all that had been achieved in creation was later destroyed. In which case, Hazony points out, Esther would seem to be a contradiction as it celebrates the possibility of Jewish rulership and power without Jerusalem, and Jewish victory without God!
However, he continues that Esther is, in fact, the “classic text of Jewish continuity” for although it speaks of a different place and time, of Jews in exile and disconnected from God, yet it is the familiar story of Amalek, the arch-idolator and anti-Jew attempting to attain supremacy and the Jews standing up against evil and seeking to rule themselves with “words of peace and truth.”
Hazony brings the dictum of Rava, that the Jews accepted Torah twice, once on Sinai (when they had no choice other than to accept it) and again, in the days of Ahasuerus, when they accepted it out of free will. He says that in the first thousand years of Jewish faith, the word of God could hardly be escaped – saturated as the culture was by the words of priest and prophet. By the time the Jews were dispersed in Persia, the prophets no longer appeared in the marketplaces and in any event the people were exiled throughout over 120 provinces and exposed to foreign influences so that God’s word ceased to be audible to them (hence the rabbis’ conclusion, “whoever lives outside the land of Israel can be considered as though he has no God.”) By now, God had “hidden His face” from man, had ceased to appear at all. But this had in no way diminished the voice of evil. The opposite was true – never since Pharaoh had Israel been so helpless as when Haman arose. The same task of overcoming evil was there, only this time, man alone bore the responsibility for taking on the mission.

Hazony points out that many interpretations of the book of Esther are based on the premise that God’s absence is a literary ploy in a story suffused with divine intervention. Yet he maintains that the “truly great events are not …the clever convergences of the plot (which) can be interpreted as hidden divine activism. Rather they are found in the initiatives of Mordechai and Esther, who repeatedly choose to risk everything for the sake of right and truth…” According to the narrative itself though, it is these actions carried out by humans which ultimately vanquish evil. Hazony suggests that Mordechai and Esther understood this transition of responsibility from God to man and they rose to the challenge of fighting idolatry and tyranny to save their people and their faith. So he says that the remarkable aspect of the book is not God’s absence itself, but the fact His absence does not induce despair and defeat. He says, “Man may still find out what God wishes of him, but he will not be given the answers; he will have to seek them. Man may still participate in the actions of God in history, but he will not be called to them; he will have to initiate them. And man may still see God’s justice and peace brought into being in the world, but it will not be handed to him, he will have to build it.”

Tsav: Sweeping out the ashes

The priest shall dress in linen raiment…and he shall pick up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. (Vayikra 6:3-4).

Arising to the sunlight
bleary-eyed and weary
recalling yesterday’s despair.

Putting on today’s fresh robes
smoothing down the turbulence
wrought by battling shadows.

Combing out the tangles
matted in the frenzy
of last night’s restless dreams.

Rinsing out the bitterness
with cool translucent water
sluicing the corrosion away.

Reverently sweeping out
the ashes of last night’s offering:
suddenly fresh promise dawns.

Rabbi Tsvi HaCohen of Riminov points out that the word for ashes is deshen which, he teaches, is an acrostic for “davar shelo nechshav – something which is of little significance.” He says [we need] to raise up even the things which seem negligible and put them by the altar, and bring them to a place of holiness.
Rabbi Menachem HaBavli is quoted in Itturei Torah on Parashat Tsav, on the phrase, “and he shall pick up the ashes” as follows: “This is one of the 613 commandments, to raise up the ashes from the altar every day, to remove the charred remains of the burnt sacrifices. And there is, in this, a symbol and an instruction, that after the one who sinned has brought his offering before God and confessed over it, he is not to be reminded of his past sin, but we are enjoined to wipe out its traces and forget it.”
In his book, The Language of Truth, The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Arthur Green quotes the Sefat Emet: “The commandment to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the waste in our lives, we are uplifted each day, and then we are given new light. This redemptive process is with us every single day.”

Vayikra: Sacrifice

…an offering made by fire of a fragrant odour to the Lord. (Vayikra 1:9)

The animal, selected from cattle or flock,
was carefully tended and lovingly tendered.
Laid on the altar, burned up by fire,
it was offered as sweet-smelling odour to You.

Cattle and poultry now are the sacrifice,
from merciless life to inglorious death.
Meat cooked by fire and served for a feast.
Does not the fetor of terror and pain
defile and besmirch the fragrant aroma?

Rashi implies that God did not want the Israelites to bring sacrifices; it was their choice. He bases this on a sentence from the haftarah for Parashat Vayikra: “I have not burdened you with grain-offerings, nor wearied you about frankincense.” (Isaiah 43:23)

Abarbanel cites a Midrash that indicates that the Israelites had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary: God is envisioned saying, “Better they bring their offerings to My table than that they bring them before idols.” (Vayikra Rabbah 22:8).

Biblical commentator R’ David Kimchi (1160-1235) also says that the sacrifices were voluntary, which he derives from Jeremiah: “For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

It appears that compassion and justice are more desirable to God than sacrifices: To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” (Proverbs 21:3).
“What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Indeed, though you offer Me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Remove from Me the noise of your song; and let Me not hear the melody of your psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-4)

With the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis taught that prayer and ethical behaviour replaced sacrifice.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) repeatedly addresses the issue of cruelty to animals: “Compassion is the feeling of sympathy which the pain of one being awakens in another…And as for man, whose function it is to show respect and love for God’s universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world…mourning even for fading flowers; so that, if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and his beneficence.” (Horeb, Chapter 17, Verse 125)

“There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul, which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes…”(Horeb, Chapter 60, Verse 415)

“Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.” (Horeb, Chapter 60, Verse 416)

Rabbi David Rosen (former Chief Rabbi of Ireland) says,”… the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means…
Indeed a central precept regarding the relationship between humans and animals in Halacha is the prohibition against causing cruelty to animals – tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. As mentioned, practices in the livestock trade today constitute a flagrant violation of this prohibition. I refer not only to the most obvious and outrageous of these, such as the production of veal and goose liver, but also to common practices in the livestock trade, such as hormonal treatment and massive drug dosing.
“…evidently the more sensitive and respectful we are toward’s God’s Creation, in particular God’s creatures, the more respectful and reverential we actually are towards God.”

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell (1917-2006) stated: “It seems doubtful from all that has been said whether the Torah would sanction ‘factory farming’, which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. This is a matter for decision by halachic authorities.”

In recent years there has been an increasing focus on “eco-Kashrut” (a term coined by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the 1970s) which sharpens the definition of kashrut to include only food that has been ethically and sustainably produced. Humane farming practices are an important part of this. Recently the Jewish world has been shaken by incidents where kosher meat producers have been found to be abusing animals.

Sources from Jewish vegetarianism, Richard Schwartz http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz/index.html