Drash on Parashat Tazria - Shabbat HaChodesh 2019
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, east Kew, Victoria
It is well-known that there are 4 ‘New Years’ in the Hebrew calendar, and the fact that this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh – the ‘Shabbat of THE month’, which falls in the week leading to Nisan, or, as in this case, actually falls on the 1st day of the month itself, highlights the importance of the month of this month. Nisan is indeed the FIRST month (the festival of spring – new beginnings – as described in Exodus). Tishrei, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, is of course the 7th month. This is not the place to go into an explanation – suffice it to say that all societies have multiple New Years – across most of our region we mark the start of the Gregorian or calendar year on 1st January (the first month), but in Australia the start of the tax year is on the first day of the seventh month. Seventh? Doesn’t that sound familiar? Indeed. The seventh month (1st July) is exactly half way through the year – six months after 1st January, and six months before 31st December. And so it is with Rosh Hashanah – new year for creation, new year for kings, new year for the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles – exactly six months after the start of the calendar year. Sukkot is called ‘HEH-Chag’, THE festival; not that it is the only one but that in some ways the Rabbis considered it the most important – and similarly this shabbat is HA-Chodesh – commencing THE month – because it marks the new start, and contains the (also very important) ‘springtime’ festival of Pesach!
I could point out that the name of this week’s portion, Tazria, has its ‘roots’ in ‘zera, seeds’ – and how appropriate for springtime, Pesach, parsley etc. But the portion is not wedded to Shabbat HaChodesh – this being a leap year, having just had the month of second Adar after Adar, Nisan and Pesach fall later in the cycle of readings than usual. But ‘zera – seeds’ would connect not only to parsley - lambs would be equally appropriate – the word ‘zera’ meaning not only plant seeds but also animal and human. Indeed it is the human seed that the title of the portion relates to: ‘Isha ki Tazria – when a woman bears seed’, if she births a male baby she is considered ‘impure’ for seven days, but if she has a girl, the ‘impure state’ lasts 14 days, twice as long. Whatever this ‘double length’ is about – and there is no explanation in the text itself – it is reinforced by the fact that it takes the woman bearing a son 33 days to be fully ‘re-admitted’ so that she can again enter the Sanctuary and touch holy things – but 66 days if she has a daughter. One suggestion is that a girl baby brings the potential for further periods, birth and blood – all of which is uncomfortable to the modern ear and especially to a movement like ours which tries hard to treat all people as equal, regardless of gender. And it is noteworthy that whilst the Rabbis understand that as well as males and females there are sometimes those whose gender is unclear for various reasons, the Torah, as in this case, usually appears much more ‘binary’, allowing only for girl and boy babies. I have a suggestion that the different lengths stipulated are to do with ‘bonding’. The parasha tells us that the mother is impure seven days, and on the eighth, the son is circumcised. The mother has to ‘hand over’ her precious baby for this ritual, which in a sense is a permanent sign that he is now part of the clan, and not hers alone. Whereas there was no such ritual for the daughter. The bonding and enjoyment could perhaps develop more gently, over twice as long?
Finally, we have to note that we are in Vayikra, the ‘Priestly handbook’. In this first section, the priest has a passive role – to receive the offering of purification – which seems to be a sin offering and again is another matter to explore elsewhere. But the portion then moves on to other forms of impurity, uncleanliness and purification. First, keeping the human connection, it considers skin ailments. Here the priests have a more active role. We see them as the ‘specialists’. They have to examine and determine whether a person is infectious, whether their ailment is spreading, whether they should be quarantined, and when they can be considered ‘pure’ once more. No offerings for the priests are mentioned in this section (though next week’s portion, M’tzora, does inform us that the cured person takes an offering) – but in this section their role is quite different, the experienced ’professionals’.
The skin diseases described are often translated as ‘tzara’at - leprosy’ but, though some of the afflictions identified may be leprosy, they can’t all be, not only because skin specialists advise us of this based on the descriptions given, but also because the portion concludes with a third section, where the word ‘tzara’at’ is used again – and this time in connection with cloth. When it uses the word here, it must therefore be understood as ‘mildew’ or ‘mould’ – and it may appear as streaks of green or red in the material. Again, the priests come in to determine what to do, whether it can be washed out, set aside for a week, or thrown away.
This concludes a fairly short portion, which in most years is combined with the following one, M’tzora (from the some Tzara’at root) – and that portion continues the themes, and indeed the red and green streaks then appear in the walls of the house, and again the priest (as building expert) comes to determine what should be done – but that’s something to look forward to for next week!