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Tazria 5782        April 2, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Every person in this room, who has ever been a parent knows the plaintive cry of the young child asking, “But why?!” From our earliest childhood, we all have a need to understand the world and to see how it all works, even behind the scenes. It is this question, “Why?” that has moved humanity forward in history. Most animals just take the world as it comes. They eat when they are hungry whatever food is around. Animals sleep when they are tired and do not think much about the weather.

     We human beings have brains that are wired to find a deeper understanding of our world and that applies also to God. We have a deep need to not only know what God requires of us, but we need to know WHY God requires it at all. We explore the entire Torah trying to understand the logic and reason behind every Mitzvah.

     And with this week’s parsha, we have reached the very edge of our understanding of God’s reasoning. Parshat Tazria looks at the messiest parts of human existence and declares them either tahur or tamai, ritually pure or impure, and this week and next week, teaches us how we can live our lives in a state of ritual purity (tahara). But there is much that is unsaid in these parshiot;, why are some natural body secretions impure? Why is ritual impurity “bad”? Why is impurity so contagious? Why are women so affected with impurity? Why are only skin diseases, called tzaraat, impure, and not other diseases? Why does God even care about all of this? Why is a sacrifice, a korban hattat, a “sin” offering (better translated as a purification offering) needed to bring us back to purity? Just like a parent of a four-year-old child, we Rabbis, each year as we read this section of Vayikrah, brace ourselves for our congregation to ask us, “But Rabbi, why?

     The natural way to approach parashat Tazria is to look at the various parts of ritual impurity; childbirth and menstruation, skin diseases and contact with the dead (dead animals and dead human beings) and try to find the lessons hiding in the Mitzvot. But there is another way of looking at our Parsha and at the issues raised here about purity and impurity. We can step back and look at the larger picture of what the effect of all these things together has on our life. No matter why we become impure, the issue might be why does impurity matter at all? There is no doubt that Tazria deals with the messiest situations. Bleeding, Childbirth, running sores, puss, it is all the kind of stuff we human beings do not really like to talk about. The very bodily fluids that are not a part of polite human conversation. What are we to do with these?

     Thousands of years ago, the rabbis of the midrash asked these questions and gave us a very strange answer. They teach that when Moshe Rabbenu went to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels wanted to know why the Torah, which is pure, should leave heaven and be sent to the impure human beings on earth. God explains to the angels, using Parshat Tazria, that since angels are not subject to these kinds of diseases, the Torah is not meant to be kept in Heaven. It is exactly because human beings are subject to impurity that they are worthy to receive the Torah. From this we can learn that being ritually impure is not necessarily a “sin” but an important part of being human. It is so important that the Torah must address it.

     Rabbi Aviva Richman in her lesson from Yeshivat Hadar this week explained how this Midrash turns all our expectations upside down. She writes, “How do these two approaches sit side by side: our messy bodily experiences as a source of alienation and distance from God and religious community, and simultaneously the bedrock of our relationship with God and Torah? We can understand the ritual of the korban hattat as helping us navigate these opposing approaches. According to biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, the korban hattat one brings after giving birth or after healing from tzara’at has nothing to do with sin or guilt but is about reorienting after a destabilizing event. Birth and illness can be destabilizing, often leading to a sense of being cut off from the regular rhythms of community and can disrupt our relationship with God or prior theological conceptions. The korban hattat is a framework for re-entry, representing a path towards social and spiritual reintegration.

     Rabbi Richman is picking up on a lesson from Ramban, Moses Nachmonides, who also tries to understand what is going on in our Parsha. Ramban seeks to understand the spiritual meaning behind all the mitzvot and these mitzvot in our parsha  are no exception. Rabbi Richman describes the position of the Ramban in this way: “Ramban explains that the korban hattat is about healing. The process of birth is a physical trauma, it is entirely destabilizing to usual bodily rhythms. He sees the korban as a “kofer nefesh (a redemption for one’s life), expressing our desire to be healed by God who “heals all flesh and acts wondrously.” For someone who has just given birth the korban is a prayer to regain nothing less than herself. 

     We see from all this that human life is always messy. Rabbi Irwin Kula from CLAL, the National Center for Learning and Leadership wrote his first book on “Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.” All our messy bodily secretions as well as all the messy situations that we get ourselves into over the course of our lives are not personal failures. These conditions are just a part of what it means to be a human being. They are what separates human life from the lives of the angels. If God wanted perfection, God had no reason to create this world at all. God created us not to be perfect but to teach us how to deal with all the things that can go wrong in life. The Torah is trying to teach us here to see beyond the problems we face and to realize that we can still overcome our problems and find our way back to a close relationship with God. We may become impure from time to time, but that is not a permanent state for human beings. We can and should strive for a return to a higher state of purity so we will merit a richer experience of the divine.

     In just a few weeks, we will read Parshat Acharay Mot and its description of Yom Kippur; how the different sacrifices over the course of the day resolved the issue of the inevitable sins that come from living our lives. Sometimes we know we have done something wrong, and we repent immediately for our actions. But life is such that many times we never know some of the sins we were responsible for. Sometimes we just forget (and sometimes we TRY to forget) the mistakes that we made. Not every slap in the face is recorded live on national television for everyone to see. We have Yom Kippur, a chance to realize that life is messy and we need to clean up our lives at least once a year, so we do not have to carry all that messiness with us year after year.

     We are left today, however, with a problem that these rituals have become impossible to perform. There is no Temple in Jerusalem to bring our korban hattat, our purification offering. How can we, today find our way back from the messiness of our lives? Rabbi Richman gives us some guidance there as well. She writes, “Today, we do not have the korban hattat as a means for weaving the experience of birth or illness into a reframed relationship with God, but we still need to do this work. What can help us notice and confront the destabilizing aspects of these intense bodily experiences that might make us feel distant from God and from others? The power of articulation—finding words for the twists and turns of these journeys, like God writing out all of these details in the Torah—is one important step to find our way from repulsion or anger towards acceptance, and even love.

     It was the early Hasidic sages who prayed, “God, I don’t know why I suffer but I only want to know that I am suffering for you.” There are times when we feel far away from God, and times when we feel so estranged from God that we despair of ever finding our way back to a holy life.

     The first step in finding our way back is to understand that everyone has such times. There are moments of illness, of life experiences and of radical change in our life that we wonder if we will even be the same person when what is happening is over. Giving birth is a life changing experience. Confronting death is a life changing experience. Severe Illness is a life changing experience, and as a result we often feel as far away from God as we can. But life is not about understanding our suffering. It is about knowing that in our most painful moments in life we can rely on God to carry us through.

     It makes me think of the play, Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye feels that all the traditions of his life are slipping away, so he turns to his wife Golda and asks, “Do you Love me?” It is the same with our feelings for God. When we feel estranged from everything in life, can we just turn to God and ask, “Do you love me”? It may sound like a cry for help, “Why is this happening to me? Why is God doing this to me? But in the end, it is the same call, Can God still love us?

     And the answer is always the same, Of course God loves you. Through all the messiness of life, the love God has for us never changes. God gave us the Torah so that in the messiest moments of our life, we will know that  God still loves us. We do not offer purification offerings, but we offer our prayers that God does not forget us when we are feeling so far away. And as always, God opens the divine arms and calls us back in.

     Tazria is not about what makes us impure and what makes us pure. It is about the sometimes-disgusting moments in life and knowing that we are never so far away from God that we cannot find our way back. Yes, we will have to pick ourselves up and clean ourselves off, but when we turn to call on God, God will still be with us, still be listening to us and God will still care about everything that we do.

     It is not a doctor that the Torah has us call in our time of Tzaraat, it is the High Priest. Tzaraat is not about the sickness, it is about knowing that God still loves us. May God always be present in our life and when life gives us blood and gore, we still know that God is nearby and always just a sincere prayer away.

     May God be with us in our good and our tough times in life as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783