Commentary for Tazria

31 Mar

Judaism is a very inclusive religion that encourages as much participation as possible. With the exception of certain very specific mitzvot (mostly the performing of sacrificial rites reserved for priests), everyone above the age of bar or bat mitzvah is able to participate in and fulfill every mitzvah, regardless of gender, class, tribe, or marital status. This week’s parshah, however, seems to be all about determining circumstances in which people are considered to be ritually impure and are excluded from participating in communal mitzvot.

 

Though there are many other ways a person can become ritually impure, the two discussed in this week’s parshah are a woman who has just given birth and a person afflicted with the skin disease Tzara’at. The (admittedly short) parshah deals almost exclusively with these two topics. The only other subject discussed is the mitzvah to circumcise a boy on the eight day after, which, in the context it is presented in, seems like it was just a quick reminder that God decided to throw in because the birth of a male child was being discussed.

 

Standing in stark contrast to this theme of exclusion is this week’s special maftir. This maftir contains the first giving of the laws of Passover and the paschal sacrifice, right before the exodus. This is viewed as a major communal moment for the Jewish People. It starts with God instructing Moses and Aaron to begin the Jewish calendar on this date, contains the first giving of ritual laws to the nation en masse, the commandments for observing the first holiday. Every Israelite is commanded to participate and it is made clear that this observance will be a religious and cultural institution of the Jewish People for all time. It is a moment that takes the Israelites from a tribe with just one God and few quirky customs and transforms them into a nation and a religion.

 

So God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they go to Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, with all of its laws, including those of ritual impurity, and when Passover was coming around the next year, some Israelites realized that they would not be able to become ritually pure in time to offer the paschal sacrifice. God ordained a second opportunity to bring the paschal sacrifice for the benefit of those who are either impure or too far away from Jerusalem to do so on the day before Passover (Num. 9:6 – 12) as a way to allow these people to still participate in the mitzvah.

 

Interestingly, the inclusion of the mitzvah of circumcision in this week’s parshah also creates opportunities for inclusion in the mitzvah for the classes of impure people in this week’s parshah. The one category of Jew forbidden from eaten the paschal sacrifice during the time of the exodus was an uncircumcised Jewish male. In order to participate in the mitzvah, any uncircumcised male would naturally want to have a bris. If someone believes that they have Tzara’at, attempting to cut off the lesions will render that person impure. The only exception to this rule is if the lesion happens to be cut off as part of a circumcision, thus allowing the person to become both pure and circumcised and thus able to partake of the paschal sacrifice.

 

Some commentators have noted that the most stringent period of impurity for the mother of a newborn male child ends on the seventh day, just in time for the bris, and that the celebration of the fact that the son was born into the covenant also allows the mother to once again take on more of her obligations in that same covenant.

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