Parshas Tazria

This week’s Sedra starts with the laws pertaining to a woman who just gave birth. Along with various other laws (i.e. Tumah/Tahara, and the obligation of Bris Mila) the Torah tells us that a woman who gave birth must bring two Korbanos (sacrifices) – an Olah (fire offering) and a Chatas (Sin offering). The Chatas, as its name suggests, is generally brought after one has committed a sin and is now in the repentance stage. While an Olah Korban can be brought for all sorts of reasons, it does achieve atonement for a person’s thoughts of sins. The Medrash (see Tanchuma; see also Seforno and Eben-Ezra) suggests the reason a woman after birth brings an Olah is because most probably while in labor, and going through the pains of contractions and birth she no doubt swore, at least mentally, that she would no longer be intimate with her husband, and that even if she would, it would then definitely not be in such a way that she could become pregnant.

While it is likely enough that a woman going through labor pains would think such things the Medrash poses various problems. Firstly since there is no obligation for a woman to have children (the Torah imposes the responsibility to procreate upon man), we need to understand why thinking that she doesn’t want to have more children should be tantamount to contemplating sin. While one could dismiss this difficulty by saying that the Medrash (Tanchuma) explicitly states that she didn’t want to be intimate with her husband. That would indeed be sinful as she would be violating her conjugal obligations to her husband. This does not, however, answer those who maintain that the issue is that she merely doesn’t want to have more children, not that she no longer wants to be intimate with her husband.  Logically as well there is no reason to assume that she wouldn’t want to be intimate with her husband, but rather that she would only like to take greater caution so as not to become pregnant.

Secondly: this answers why she should bring an Olah, not why she must bring a Chatas, since she definitely didn’t actively sin.

Anyone who has experienced a birth, whether actually giving birth or simply witnessing the event, knows that something awesome occurred. One experiences a tremendous closeness to God, for God is indeed a partner in each and every birth (see Gemorah Kidushin).  It is not by accident that birth is often referred to as “The Miracle of Birth”. Hashem’s partnership in the creation of each new person, however, doesn’t begin during labor. It starts at the moment of conception. Chazal tell us that when there is peace and harmony between husband and wife then there is Hashem’s Divine Presence.  Yet when a man and woman come together in an act of intimacy they achieve the greatest and most spectacular pleasure. The truth is that all physical pleasures contain tremendous spiritual experiences (i.e. eating, sleeping, and smelling). The Seforim Hakedoshim explain that all pleasures have a spiritual aspect as well (see Reishis Chachma and Kisvei). In the case of intimacy between husband and wife it is this spiritual component that allows for the creation of children because it is the spiritual element that brings God into the picture, thus allowing the creation of a new person.

If a woman merely thinks that she doesn’t want to have any more children, or perhaps  even not to be intimate with her husband, (all Halachick ramifications aside), what she in essence is saying is: ‘all I care about is my personal physical pleasure; I don’t care for the spiritual element of intimacy! I don’t care for God or for a deep relationship with my husband!’  (This is in the event she has such thoughts under duress. If, however, she has valid reasons for thinking that it would be better not to have more children, then perhaps it would be a different story since Halachikly she is indeed not commanded to have children.)

Even though it is in theory ‘wrong’ to think along the lines described above, the Torah recognizes this as, so to speak, ‘normal’ for a woman suffering the pains of giving birth. Thus the Torah commands all women after birth to bring a Korban Olah to ‘atone’ for these thoughts (see Rabbi T.D Kanotopsky in Lel-Shemurim).

Following through with the same approach perhaps we can understand aswell the reason for her bringing a Chatas. If her thoughts during the painful hours of birth were that she wished not to have any more children; if she thought that intimacy isn’t worth it if it might result in such suffering, then indeed she was focussing only on her physical pleasures and of nothing else. Assuming this to be true then when she had actually been intimate she only did so mainly for selfish reasons. Thus she is bringing the Chatas for an active act of selfish desire. The Torah HaKdosha commands all women after birth alike to bring this Chatas no matter what. The Torah seems to be taking Mans lust, and self centeredness as a given.

Although the Torah seems to be viewing Man in a rather negative light, it is in fact simply recognizing that mankind indeed tends to be self-centred. Perhaps the Torah is teaching us the ‘antidote’ for this selfishness. Maybe the Torah is telling us that although you can’t fully overcome selfishness it is possible to deal with it. The Torah seems to be telling us – “recognize it and make up for it”. In other words just like the Yoledes (woman who has given birth) brings an Olah and a Chattas, so too should we all do and give whatever we can to Hashem so as to counteract our self centred inclinations. Then and only then will we achieve the perfect balance.

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In this week’s Sedra we read about Lepers. The leprosy we read of however, isn’t just a mere skin ailment but rather a form of spiritual contamination. The Torah describes in great detail different forms of Tzoraas (Leprosy) and explains the differences in the ramifications of each particular type.  Just as with regular ailments no two are exactly the same and therefore may require different treatments, so too does the Torah prescribe different treatments for the different types.

Some of the differentiations the Torah makes are more obvious than some of the others. Perhaps the least obvious distinction is one that the Zohar Hakadosh points out. Rebbe Chiya (as brought in the Zohar Tazria, 45b) points out that the Torah seems to be slightly redundant: the Torah tells us that a person who has Tzoraas comes to the Kohen to be examined.  If the blemished area fits the description of Tzoraas he is tamei – this all seems clear.  The Torah, however, then repeats itself by saying “and the Kohen should see it and be Metamei him”.   Rebbe Chiya explains that the Torah is telling us that there are two types of Tzoraas. There is one type that is in an unclothed area of a person; thus when he comes to the Kohen the latter sees it right away. There still remains the second type that, because it is hidden by clothing, requires the person to undress for the Kohen to examine it.

Rebbe Yossi (as brought in aforementioned Zohar) develops this idea further. Rebbe Yossi explains that there are two kinds of hardships in general that Hashem brings upon people: there are hardships that are brought upon people privately in a way that they are concealed from others, and there are those that are brought upon people publicly — apparent to all.   Rebbe Yossi explains that this is the difference between Yisurim shel Ahava – hardships bestowed upon a person out of Hashem’s Love for him, and regular Yisurim – regular hardships. Rebbe Yossi explains that since Hashem loves us He first tries to admonish us in a discreet fashion, and resorts to public rebuke only if we don’t change our ways as a result of the private rebuke.  If, however, we persist in our transgression after Hashem’s discreet and private Teshuva call, He then exposes us publicly by punishing us for all to see until we repent.

There is a Gemorah in Brachos (5a) that discusses as well what Yissurim shel Ahava are and what are regular Yissurim. The Gemorah first proposes that Yissurim Shel Ahava are only those that a person receives for no other purpose than for Hashem to give more reward.  The Gemorah concludes that these Yissurim must be of such a nature that they don’t impede upon a person’s ability to study Torah or to daven to Hashem. The Gemorah explains that regular Yissurim, on the other hand, are given in order to atone for sin. The Gemorah then states that Rebbe Chiya doesn’t make any such distinctions and maintains that all Yissurim are Yissurim shel Ahava. Rebbe Chiya further explains that the purpose of all Yissurim is to rid a person’s body from sin.

At first glance, it is a little difficult to understand how all Yissurim can be out of love? Rebbe Chiya would also seem to be at odds with Rebbe Yossi’s explanation of Yissurim shel Ahava.

Rebbe Chiya clearly states that the reason that all Yissurim are shel Ahava is because they are all here in so that we should remove ourselves from sin. Rebbe Yossi explained that the purpose of Yissurim shel Ahava is to do so on a private level. The earlier section of the Gemorah cited above explains that the purpose is solely to give greater reward. The one apparent commonality among these explanations would seem to be building character.

While, as the Gemorah states, the purpose might be to give greater reward, the individual subjected to punishment must still learn to cope with his suffering in such a way as to make him a better person.  Someone who suffers privately and uses that suffering constructively, interpreting it correctly as a message to repent, has made himself into a better person.

What Rebbe Chiya may in effect be saying is that Yissurim, no matter of what kind, should always be utilized to remove people from sin, thereby making them better persons – and therefore they are in reality Yissurim Shel Ahava.

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This week’s Sedra deals largely with the laws and particulars pertaining to Tzaraas (generally translated as ‘leprosy’). Leprosy is a form of a skin ailment that affects a person by causing that person to become Tamei (metaphysically impure). There are various Midrashim and Gemoros that explain Tzaraas as being in effect punishment of a sort.

The Medrash Tanchuma tells us Hashem is reluctant to punish people, and that consequently, prior to inflicting Tzaraas Hashem warns people in other ways to do Teshuva.  It is only after the individual in question has received these earlier Yesurin, or more minor punishments, and has not repented, that Hashem afflicts that individual with Tzaraas. Tzaraas is imposed first onto the person’s house, then on his clothing. It is only if none of these ‘messages’ have the desired effect that Hashem afflicts the individual’s body with Tzaraas.

The Medrash seems to have it a bit backwards. If, as is the case, Hashem is reluctant to punish, would it not make sense for Hashem to first make a person tamei –  the one who sinned – rather than bringing hardships upon that person?  It would be only if the individual in question does not then repent that Hashem would begin afflicting him with Yesurin.

When an individual is contaminated with Tzaraas that individual is not permitted in the camp and is placed at a great distance from all holy things.

The Medrash, it would appear, is teaching us more than the sequence of Divine Punishment.  It is teaching us an order of priorities. A person who is Tamei is physically OK, but is being tormented spiritually by needing to keep a distance from anything holy. The Medrash is coming to teach us that spiritual torment is far worse than physical suffering.

The Medrash is placing an emphasis on the importance of the spiritual and metaphysical.

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Both this week’s Parsha and next week’s (Tazria and Metzora) deal with the laws and particulars of leprosy.  In Parshas Taazria (Vayikra 13, 45) the Torah tells us that the person contaminated with Tzaraas must call out (while he is on his way to leaving the encampment) ‘Tamei, Tamei’. In other words, the Torah obligates a Tzarua to publically declare his impure state of being. The Tzarua is, ultimately, supposed to leave the dwelling place of the rest of Klal-Yisroel and stay alone outside of the camp until his impure state passes.

This first step of publically declaring his impurity seems to be at odds with the normal Jewish/Torah approach to life. Chazal tell us (Tractate Brachos) that one who sins, and is embarrassed by the fact that he transgressed Hashem’s will and acted inappropriately, is automatically forgiven for all his transgressions. Furthermore, the Rambam says that “Lehalacha” it is best for one to hide one’s sins. Most of the commentators explain that advertising one’s sins creates a greater Chilul Hashem.  As such it would seem that being impure would best be dealt with in a discreet manner. Why must the Tzarua announce that he is impure to all? Chazal explain that Tzaraas comes as a punishment for all sorts of sins. That being the case, the announcing of one’s sins is that much more difficult to understand.

The Rambam develops further his concept of whether or not one should publicize one’s transgressions and differentiates based on the type of wrongdoing. He explains that one should hide one’s sins when they pertain only to Hashem, but when one acts inappropriately towards fellow human beings one should, after doing Teshuva, make clear to others one’s earlier inappropriate behavior, explaining that this is now a thing of the past and that one has stopped acting in such manner.  What is it that is different between acting inappropriately towards Hashem and acting inappropriately towards people? Once the Torah forbade acting wrongly towards others, it then stands to reason that all such behavior is also by default a direct injustice to Hashem.

When one wrongs another person one brings down the level of normal social moral.  One who then wishes to rectify such behavior has no recourse because while he may regret his actions, the effect these have had on society are non-retractable. Thus, the only way to possibly (at least partially) rectify this element of ruin to society is by expounding to others to stop these behaviors just as he has.

When an action has a latent impact on society the only way to remedy it is to bring it to a more conscious surface. Usually the Torah’s approach is to keep one’s wrongdoings ‘under the rug’ because bringing them into the open will cause more damage. Tzaraas, however, can contaminate others, and as such it is necessary to let others know so as not to contaminate them.

Lashon Horah is the most common transgression for which Tzaraas is used as punishment. Perhaps the reason is that ultimately Lashon Horah has a demeaning ripple effect on society. Loshon Horah contaminates society very much in the same way as Tzaraas.  Perhaps this is the reason why the punishment requires the subject to announce that he has been afflicted. Having contributed to the demeaning of society, he must in turn help to remove the blot.