Parashat Tazria

Cycles Of Life, Death, And Purification

The cycle of life and death represented by leprosy encourages us to bring acts of purity into our lives even when we have become impure.

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Some commentators have interpreted Parashat Tazria as speaking of the deepest levels of intimacy between God and the Jewish people, described in terms of the love between a man and a woman. On the human level, this relationship is multi-dimensional, including physical and emotional intimacy. Similarly, the love between the Jews and God is a complex, dynamic union. The Jewish people's close bond with God nurtures and sustains it.

Parashat Tazria's second verse begins, "When a woman conceives [tazria] and gives birth…." The "woman" can be seen as referring not only to an individual, but also to the Jewish people, which brings new life into the world.

In addition to "conceives," tazria also can be translated as "gives seed," which is of metaphorical significance both for the Jewish people as a whole and for each individual. For after a seed is planted in the earth, its shell must decompose; only then will its growth potential be expressed. Similarly, with the mitzvot (commandments), observance (the seed), not the feelings they arouse (the shell), is of primary importance. In fact, the great medieval commentator Rashi and many traditional texts refer to mitzvot as "seeds," as it is written: "Sow for yourselves for charity."

The name Tazria, which refers to the theme of conception, can be connected not only to the opening passages, but also to the reading in its entirety. How is this so? Although the portion's first passages speak about birth, most of the reading concerns tzara'at, a skin affliction that resembles leprosy and that is the very opposite of new life. Indeed, our Sages state that a person afflicted with tzara'at is considered as if dead. How can such a subject be associated with new life?

The Rambam (Maimonides) describes tzara'at as not only a physical malady, but also as "beyond the natural pattern of the world...a divine sign and a wonder for the Jewish people to warn them against speaking gossip and slander." The punishments prescribed by the Torah aren't for the sake of retribution, but rather to absolve the person's sins and to enable that individual to correct or his or her faults.

Some suggest that the affliction of tzara'at is a divine instrument intended to prod an individual toward personal refinement, and to encourage the spread of peace and love among people. This interpretation encourages us to focus our efforts on bringing something new and pure into ourselves and into our environment, even when we ourselves have become morally "impure."

In this season of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence Day we recognize that the themes of birth and renewal are synonymous with our relationship to Israel. Our personal and professional lives, and the society we live in, continually go through many levels of purification. They do so as we strive, as both individuals and as a people, to repair the world that's in our care.

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Simon S. Kaminetsky is Long Island regional director of UJA-Federation of New York.