The Courage to Recover from Death to Life: Tazria-Metzora 5777

Jewish consciousness in the coming months will be dominated by major anniversaries related to Israel–the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN partition vote, and then, next April, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence. Each of those markers has complex associations which we will consider in due course. To frame these words of Torah I would like to consider not the 69th birthday of the State of Israel, but rather the state of the Jewish people 70 years ago, in May 1947, before the UN vote and before the State was declared. What was Jewish life like in 1947?

During WW II between 11-20 million people were displaced, many of them Jews; many, of course, were not only displaced but murdered. At the end of the war the conquering armies tried to repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin, and 6 million or so people were returned “home,” but over a million could not or would not be repatriated; many of these were Jews. By 1947 there were about 850,000 displaced persons living in DP camps, a number that gradually subsided over the next five years, though the last camps were closed only in the late 1950s.

For the Jews of Europe, 1947 must have seemed particularly hopeless. Over a millennium of Jewish life in Europe, much of it robust and secure, was now in shambles. Families were splintered and destroyed; Jewish villages and urban communities were blotted out. America remained out of reach for most refugees, and the British blockade on Palestine kept many Jews from reaching the land of Israel. Jews had been persecuted by Christians, and also by Muslims, for many centuries, and the desperate hope placed by many in socialism had failed to create a universal sense of brotherhood and solidarity. Religious faith was at a nadir, and the simple claim that God would be a the guardian of Israel seemed ludicrous.

One must consider this despondent situation when regarding the birth of the State of Israel. Today it seems that all we discuss are the flaws of the State, which are real and of serious concern. Yet the core mission of the State at its founding was to be a refuge for a persecuted people, and that it has accomplished.  A moment which could easily have been the death of the Jewish people and even of the Jewish idea, instead became a moment of Jewish rebirth, both in Israel and in America. A keen sense of loss and pain as well as continuous danger hovered over the heads of the Jewish people as they turned to the “Great Powers” to offer them a small slice of land where the remnants of Israel to gather and regroup. But before they could negotiate and struggle with the external world, these battered people needed to look within—was it worth the effort to continue to live? The courage of making that decision exceeds any of the battlefield victories. Indeed, it was the essential ingredient for fashioning any Jewish future.

The toughness of those survivors remains astonishing to me. With a minimum of sentiment they set about rebuilding—their broken bodies, their decimated families, their communities and institutions and sense of worth, and for some, even their faith. I think often of my Detroit colleague Cantor Larry Vieder z”l, who lost 11 immediate relatives in the Shoah. When he sang Hallel he belted out the words, לא אמות כי אחיה ואספר מעשי יה–I will not die, but live. And I will tell the works of God. When he said these words it was almost a dare–I have seen and felt and done too much to be cowed by anyone, including God. Like many survivors, he survived by a combination of luck and courage, fighting with the partisans, making his way later to Israel to fight in the War of Independence, and then coming to Canada and finally Detroit to make a new life—a family, a congregation, a thriving Jewish community.

Death and birth often arrive in close proximity, as Kohelet says, A generation departs, and a generation arrives, but the land stands forever. Our brief and fragile lives can seem trite in the context of billions of years of natural history and the agonies that often mar the human experience. And yet, the Torah reminds us constantly that our lives have infinite value. We are capable of becoming holy, like God, and so we are challenged to live with courage, with resilience, and with goodness. Easier said than done! And with this we arrive at our portion.

Consider the new mother of our first Torah portion. After giving birth she is quarantined for a period of healing and purification from the great flow of blood and the experience of danger that attends labor and delivery. Once she is ready to return to public life, she is summoned to the sanctuary to present two sacrifices. The first is a relatively large and expensive animal—a yearling sheep as an elevation offering to God; the second is a bird for purification. If a sheep is too expensive for her, then she may offer a bird in its place (this is consistent with the rule in Lev. 5:7 that poor people requiring purification are allowed a discount option).

Why must she offer sacrifice, and why these two in particular? The rabbis in Midrash Tanhuma state that the sacrifices are a spiritual restorative to the travails of labor. This woman, they explain, had wailed 100 times during labor and delivery. 99 times she cried for death, but the 100th time she cried for life. Her “sin” was her desperate and temporary rejection of life—of future procreation—because of the intensity of suffering that it brought her. And yet, the sages say that her 100th cry was for life—in the end, this woman summoned the courage and strength to push through her pain and bring new life to the world. Much like the survivors discussed above, she knew the pain and risk of living, but she asserted the power of life nonetheless. This determination merits a ritual in the holy temple (even if the child does not survive). The new mother is a heroine, an example of the will to live.

This brings us to her sacrifices, first an elevation offering (עולה), and then a purification (חטאת). At least, that is the Torah’s order. This disturbs the rabbis. In Bavli Zevahim 90a they state that the normal order of sacrifice should be purification before the elevation offering. How can an impure person offer the pure sacrifice of an elevation offering? And yet the Torah reverses that order for the new mother. Rava offers a solution—the purification offering is indeed sacrificed first, but the elevation offering is “called” first. Rashi there explains that the narrative order differs from the ritual action, but he does not explain why. Tosfot offers the solution that the woman might dedicate the animal to be used for elevation first, then sacrifice her purification offering and then turn back to the elevation offering to complete the cycle.

What does it matter? It is hard to know the intention of the Torah, but here is my interpretation: The elevation offering is a celebration of life—it is praise of the Creator for the gift of life, land and family. The purification offering is an acknowledgement of imperfection—of failing bodies, of moral pitfalls, of contact with impurity and death. These two sacrifices are inextricable because one cannot summon the strength to purify oneself unless they first find the courage to affirm the value of living. The elevation offering symbolizes that affirmation—it must be dedicated first, and then the person can purify themselves and begin to act. The mental decision point precedes the physical act, but the physical act is what changes reality and allows conviction and courage to lead to renewal and life.

According to this reading, the new mother is making a subtle but sublime statement. Life is painful and dangerous and fragile. Sometimes this realization can overwhelm us and make us question the value of living. But even if pain is 99% of experience, there remains a sliver of hope upon which a person can stand and rebuild life. The elevation offering is that sliver of hope—it must be identified first, before a person can rededicate herself to healing, strengthening, and rebuilding life. In our era as well, we have witnessed not only destruction but also rebuilding of life. We stand in awe at the courage and resilience of those who survived and thrived. Even if our own challenges seem paltry in comparison, we too must develop a vision of elevation—to witness the goodness of God in the land of the living—and then we must purify and dedicate ourselves to make this vision and reality. The State of Israel is an example of the improbable renewal of Jewish life. Let it inspire us to rebuild a deep and committed Jewish life here as well.


תהלים פרק קיח, יז-יח

(יז) לֹֽא אָמ֥וּת כִּי־אֶֽחְיֶ֑ה וַ֝אֲסַפֵּ֗ר מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥י יָֽהּ: (יח) יַסֹּ֣ר יִסְּרַ֣נִּי יָּ֑הּ וְ֝לַמָּ֗וֶת לֹ֣א נְתָנָֽנִי:

קהלת פרק א, ד

(ד) דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת:

ויקרא פרק יב, ו-ח

(ו) וּבִמְלֹ֣את׀ יְמֵ֣י טָהֳרָ֗הּ לְבֵן֘ א֣וֹ לְבַת֒ תָּבִ֞יא כֶּ֤בֶשׂ בֶּן־שְׁנָתוֹ֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה וּבֶן־יוֹנָ֥ה אוֹ־תֹ֖ר לְחַטָּ֑את אֶל־פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן: (ז) וְהִקְרִיב֞וֹ לִפְנֵ֤י יְקֹוָק֙ וְכִפֶּ֣ר עָלֶ֔יהָ וְטָהֲרָ֖ה מִמְּקֹ֣ר דָּמֶ֑יהָ זֹ֤את תּוֹרַת֙ הַיֹּלֶ֔דֶת לַזָּכָ֖ר א֥וֹ לַנְּקֵבָֽה: (ח) וְאִם־לֹ֨א תִמְצָ֣א יָדָהּ֘ דֵּ֣י שֶׂה֒ וְלָקְחָ֣ה שְׁתֵּֽי־תֹרִ֗ים א֤וֹ שְׁנֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יוֹנָ֔ה אֶחָ֥ד לְעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶחָ֣ד לְחַטָּ֑את וְכִפֶּ֥ר עָלֶ֛יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטָהֵֽרָה:

מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת תזריע סימן ו

[ו] ובמלאת ימי טהרה לבן או לבת תביא כבש בן שנתו לעולה וגו’ (ויקרא יב ו). למה היא מביאה קרבן, אמרו רבותינו מאה פעמים היא פועה בשעה שהיא יושבת על המשבר, תשעים ותשעה למיתה ואחד לחיים, וכיון שהצרות מגיעות אצלה, היא נודרת שאינה מכרת אישה עוד, לכך היא מביאה קרבן, שנאמר תביא כבש בן שנתו וגו’.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת זבחים דף צ עמוד א

תא שמע, ר”א אומר: כל מקום שנתחלפה חטאת – חטאת קודמת, וכאן (ביולדת) עולה קודמת, כל מקום שבא על חטא – חטאת קודמת, וכאן עולה קודמת, וכל מקום ששנים באים תחת חטאת – חטאת קודמת, וכאן עולה קודמת! אמר רבא: למקראה הקדימה הכתוב.

רש”י מסכת זבחים דף צ עמוד א

למקראה הקדימה הכתוב – שתהא נקראת בענין תחילה אבל בעבודתן חטאת קודמת וכדאמרן מזה בנה אב.

תוספות מסכת זבחים דף צ עמוד א

למקראה הקדימה הכתוב – פירש בקונט’ שתהא נקראת בענין תחילה ותימה מה חידוש הוא זה ומפרש ה”ר חיים להקדישה תחילה שיקדיש העולה קודם החטאת אבל להקריב חטאת קודמת והא דתנן וכן בהקדישה מתני’ לא מיירי ביולדת אף על גב דמשמע קצת דאכל מה דתנן חטאת קודמת לעולה בהקרבה בכל הנהו וכן בהקדישה וקשה לפי’ מהא דאמרינן בערכין פרק האומר משקלי עלי (דף כא.) חייבי חטאות אין ממשכנין אותן חייבי עולות ממשכנין אותן ופעמים שחייבי עולות אין ממשכנין אותן ופריך מאי נינהו אי נימא עולת יולדת פי’ דא”צ למשכנה משום דאי אפשר לה להביא חטאת עד שתביא עולתה והאמר רבא למקראה הקדימה הכתוב ואי כפירוש ה”ר חיים כיון דצריכה להקדיש עולה קודם לחטאת א”כ א”צ למשכן ועל כרחה תביא שתיהן.