Between the Joy of Renewal and Serious Contemplation
Rabbi Gilad Kariv
At Reform congregations in Israel, the Shabbat between Holocaust Memorial Day – Yom ha’Shoah, and Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror – Yom ha’Zikaron and Yom ha’Atzmaut – Independence Day, is called “Shabbat Tkumah” – Shabbat of Revival, on the same token as “Shabbat Shuvah”, which is celebrated between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. Similarly to its “older sister”, this Shabbat too combines the joy of beginnings and renewal with the serious contemplation that comes with memorial and soul searching. At my congregation, Beit Daniel in Tel-Aviv, at the Shabbat Tkumah service we read the prayers and various readings in “seventy languages”, representing the mosaic of diaspora communities that came together, and continues to form in Israel. We begin the service with the blowing of the Shofar, a sound that connects so deeply to the sound of the sirens heard on the national memorial days.
On non-leap years, two Parashot are read on the Shabbat before Yom ha’Atzmaut: “Tazriyah” and “Metzorah”. These Torah portions discuss matters of impurity and purity related to sickness in the body and the home, with an emphasis on leprosy, and laws related to impurity caused by secretions from a person’s body, including menstruation blood and birthing blood. It is doubtful whether there are other Torah portions which seem as distance from our modern reality and secular or liberal religious world view as these ones, even though, for the Orthodox community, menstruation laws are central and very important.
At the same time, there are always, including in these two parashot, aspects that are relevant to our lives, from the way we conceive the role of those in charge of healing, through the way we view our bodies and what takes place in them and all the way to the relationship of an individual and a family with their surrounding community. And because both parashot are read this year right before Yom ha’Atzmaut, I will focus on one idea which I find in the parashot, which I believe directly relates to the realities of our lives.
Parashat Tazriyah begins with the joyful moment of the birth of a child, a new person:
“Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child… But if she bear a maid-child...” (Leviticus 12).
In this sense, this Torah portion is appropriate for this week, which symbolizes in many ways the rebirth of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation. The name of the parasha, and the expression “if a woman be delivered” is similar to the words found in Psalms 126:
“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goeth on his way weeping that beareth the measure of seed, he shall come home with joy, bearing his sheaves.”
This verse, by the way, was suggested as Israel’s national anthem, but lost to “HaTikvah” (to this day, it is customary to sing it on Yom ha’Atzmaut at synagogues to the melody of “HaTikvah”).
The discussions about the moment of birth in the sense of the blood, while being far removed from us when dealing with matters of impurity and purity, is very relevant to the complex connection between Yom ha’Zikaron and Yom ha’Atzmaut, and to the deep understanding that the renewed birth of the Jewish people in their homeland came with a lot of bloodshed, from which we have yet to ridden ourselves. A cycle of bloodshed from which we suffer many terrible victims, as do – yes – the other side. Two weeks after Passover, the words of the Prophet Ezekiel that are read at the Seder: “I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live”, are very relevant and painful.
Following the moment of birth, the two portions go on to discuss diseases of the body and the home, focusing on leprosy. Parashat Metzorah devotes significant portions of its verses to the leprosy in the home, spreading in the walls. The Parasha presents a detailed description of the examination process for the disease and the foreclosure on the house, led by the priest. The essence of the process is to check if the disease can be healed and then remove it from the home. Following seven days of curfew, the stones and bricks contaminated by the disease are removed. They are replaced by new stones and the house is re-plastered. If the disease returns after this, then the house must be completely demolished.
At the beginning of the discussion over the “leprosy in the home”, the Torah emphasizes its relevance to the time during which the people are sitting in their land and building their homes:
“When ye are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession” (Leviticus 14; 34).
The Parasha is suggesting, in a very picturesque way, to recognize the fact that diseases can spread in the walls of the home, and the dwelling erected in the land of their possession is not immune to diseases. Ignoring them does not make them disappear, but rather spread further. An early recognition of the disease and dealing with it allows them to replace the tainted stones, without taking down the entire home. Anyone who wants their home to remain standing – cannot ignore and cannot cover up without replacing the tainted stones.
In recent years, growing parts of Israeli society have been engaging in dialogue that tries to undermine the legitimacy of criticism, of the attempt to point out flaws and wrongdoings. Those who expose them are very often presented as not being loyal to the home or not having its best interest at heart. I read Parashat Metzorah, as metaphorically suggesting that it is those who know to point out the stones that need to be replaced, those who refuse to whitewash – they are those who ensure the future of the home and prevent its demolition. Reading Parashot Tazriyah and Metzorah together before the holiday celebrating the establishment of the national home – is worthy of reminding us of the need to both be joyful today with all of our hearts for the miracle of the birth of the State of Israel, and at the same time, to work to repair it.
It was Berl Katzanelson, one of the announcers of the birth of the State of Israel, who taught us the important lesson of “giving thanks to the embarrassment and defaming the whitewashing”. This is what he said to a group of youth olim instructors in 1940: “I am better off having an embarrassed, wandering and uneasy soul, than one which has no flaws, and continues to remain silent about its truths.”