Tazria– Leviticus 12:1-13:59, The Parashat Hashavua for Saturday, April 6, 2019 Commentary by Cantor Fran Burgess
The book of Leviticus opens our modern eyes to the often confounding ritual practices and ideas of our ancient sacrificial cult. The material throughout this middle book of the Bible concerns itself with defining laws of purity and the function of the priestly class in the mitigation of these impurities. Ancient Israelites developed a system to categorize persons and places as Holy (Kodesh) or common (Chol) and as pure (tahor) or impure (Tame’). These sets of categories are not identical; what is pure is not necessarily holy, nor is the common necessarily impure. There are two major notions of impurity- moral and ritual. Moral impurity concerned the dangers of defilement associated with grave sins such as incest, idolatry and murder. Ritual impurity concerns contact with natural body substances relating to birth, death and sexual disease.
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, begins with a description of ritual impurity following childbirth and moves on to skin diseases, bodily emissions and diseases of the sexual organs. The remedies for purification are outlined. Ritual impurity is temporary and affects all the members of society. There are prohibitions when one is ritually impure, but each person has a way to be purified and then to rejoin the community and Temple life.
Although this was a “top down” society where the priests had much responsibility for the workings of life in the community, there was also a democratic aspect to the methods of purification required. When the affected person was declared pure again, they were required to bring a sacrifice to the Temple. A poor member of society was not expected to bring as rich an offering as the affluent among them. This assured that the proscriptions were affordable to all.
Rabbi Samson Hirsch (19th Century German scholar) commented on this affordability issue:
“The poverty-stricken and suffering people often assume they have been forsaken by God’s care, abandoned by God…as a result, they abandon themselves, give themselves up to despair…lose their self- respect…They fall because they have given up all thoughts of betterment.”
Within the gory descriptions of skin diseases, bodily fluids that contaminate and sexual disease, we find an important nugget of Torah wisdom- that the poor are as important to God as the rich. All have agency and the ability to fully participate in a relationship with God and society.