Impurities and Sacrifices, Israelites and Israel

Tazria-Metzora
3 Iyyar 5777
29 April 2017

Since last Sunday at the Hyde Park Yom HaShoah program, Israel has been on my mind.  As I sat down to think about what to write about this portion, it was Israel that was filling the pages of my notes.  Despite the political and internal difficulty it presents, it may be easier to speak about Israel than to parse the meaning of white and yellow hairs on skin and its ritual implications (the double portion of Tazria-Metzora deals with physical issues, bodily fluids, and ailments stemming from ritual impurity).  Or maybe I have simply convinced myself of that.  But before I return to Israel, I want to offer a brief thought on where I am now after a week of studying this difficult and distant double portion.

Part of me feels that we should become a little more comfortable letting the text be.  We should gain a comfort with the inherently uncomfortable; perhaps squirming from unease should not be divorced from other forms of biblical study and the experience they yield.  We need to learn to undo our instinct to write off, discard or rewrite a text or passages in the Torah that offend us or no longer make sense to us; that was the prevailing mode of Torah study for much of Jewish history.  As progressive, modern Jews who look to scholarship and are critical consumers of bible, we have broken it down–and in many or most places for the right reasons.  In many places the text does not make sense to us; it also offends our moral outlook on the world, betraying our vision of what is right and wrong.  Amending the way we see the text here is a good thing.  While it has led to the Torah having less authority and sway in the lives of Jews, those who have engaged with it engage on a deeper level–no longer being mere passive readers or being beholden to its literal meaning.  But it is ok to say that the text is hard, not as relevant or resonant, while sanctifying just that, making holy the recognition that it may not move us today, it may leave us feeling empty or angry, but this is a part of the process of maintaining its centrality and furthering the tradition.  We need to resist the urge of introducing drashshot/sermons or ideas solely to make it work for us today–much of the Torah does, these portions may not, at least this Shabbat–but that does not mean we neglect it and, God forbid, skip over it.

Perhaps you can see the Israel sermon coming…  But, specifically what has made me think of Israel in the parasha was that much of the afflictions were based upon speech and moral failures.  Speech on Israel consumes so much of our energy, so much of our time–yet that energy leads not to building up but to breaking down.  And we as a community have spent far less time on recourse, on how to bring each other back from such negative, and often, mean-spirited talk (not discussion or dialogue).  We break each other down because of where we stand on Israel, leaving each individual isolated with no place to go other than deeper into that originally held position.  Keep in mind the isolation felt by the person who has contracted tumah/impurity in our portion.  He/she was placed outside of the camp, but the Priest would come and routinely check on him/her and bring that person back into the community himself!

My teacher Rabbi Danny Nevins wrote a great dvar Torah about where Jews were 70 years ago today, not next year when Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday.  In 1947 the Jewish people were at an all-time low because the horrors of the Shoah were, now, fully known, at least to Jews.  Survivors of this incomprehensible trauma were being repatriated by the very people who had turned them over to the Nazis (or were at least complicit).  Immigration to British Mandate Palestine had always been difficult, and now its policies were constricting.  And even if you safely immigrated to the US or Australia or even Palestine, the shame of being a Jew as well as the guilt of surviving must have been too much to bear.  It must have felt not only dire but also that being a Jew was hopeless, that this was the cataclysmic low-point to Jewish history, a history littered with low points.

But then the UN partition plan was signed and a year later, after the War of Independence, Israel was real, a reality.  How easily that sense of hopelessness can be forgotten, which I think is a good thing.  Yet, how quickly have we become acculturated to Israel existing?  This is not a good thing, as we have quickly neglected several thousand years of an ever-present vulnerability for a few decades of strength.

I bristle with discomfort when Hatikvah is sung at Yom HaShoah programs.  These two days and realities need to be separated for the dignity of both–for the dignity of the people they memorialize and the people they celebrate.  I understand the instinct, which is right, but they are different and distinct days; conflating them is a mistake.  We need to hold onto to both, while honoring them independently.

Previous generations have gotten the education of both Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaShoah wrong.  There has been too much blind joy and too much loss:  the joy keeping us from seeing beyond our particular joy while the Shoah has been transformed into communal guilt, and guilt that has often been translated into an educational policy.  And, perhaps worse, that loss–on all sides–has been given short shrift because now we can rejoice in our Zionist reality.

For me, and I think for the Jewish community too, Israel needs to begin with Joy.  We have the land of Israel, not a longing or a hopeful prayer but a place that we are only a few clicks away from, which must never be overlooked.  But now that we have it, and our concern is understandably protecting its borders, we can never neglect the necessity to protect its soul.  That means having difficult conversations and protecting the Nahshon ben Amimnadovs (as the Egyptians were closing in, he went into the water first and initiated the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea) of the Jewish community–those brave enough to begin those very conversations, those strong enough to speak for but also to the Jewish community.

Israel being a reality means the luxury of choosing a book for One Book, One Rodfei that is an Israeli book by an Israeli Arab.  That means not being threatened by the truths and realities of that book or by the author.  Only a people in power, a people in control have that luxury.  We should relish that responsibility, not cower in fear of it; nor can we deny that it is a luxury.  And while I resist, fervently, the urge to conflate the birth of Israel with the Shoah, historically accurate or not, the truth that it taught us must never escape us and are bound in the same book of memory.

Theodore Herzl did not dream up the idea of Zionism out of nowhere, nor did it come about because of what he saw or realized with the Dreyfuss Affair.  But he knew of the threat of anti‑semitism, and he knew that the Jews needed a state because of it.  The Zionist thinkers that followed him put together a far more compelling reason and vision for Zionism, one that allows for Judaism and Jewry to be not only sustained but also furthered.

Israel represents many things:  the rebirth of Hebrew, a Jewish food culture, entirely Jewish cities–not ghettos but metropolises.  And Israel also represents the acknowledgement that we are here and Israel is there to ensure that.  Yet we cannot forget how quickly things can be taken away–wealth, dignity and, ultimately, life.

For those who do not feel the pull of Zionism, challenge yourself to acknowledge its essential nature in the life of Jews and Judaism–we need to see the timeline of Jewish history before and after emancipation, as well as before and after the Holocaust.  Challenge yourself to think of the security and self-confidence we have as a Jewish community and as Jews simply because Israel exists; being a Jew since Israel was born is unequivocally different than before.  For those of us who have Israel coursing through our veins, remember it is our national representation of what Jews have been called on to do, to be the living embodiment of mitzvoth–and we must use our voices to demonstrate when it fails.  We must have the courage to say it has contracted tumah/impurity, but we must also be willing to be the priest and bring it back into the community.  We must be strong enough to acknowledge its need to be purified, while overcoming the fear of standing with it because of that impurity.

We as a Jewish community in the diaspora need to recognize how important Israel is for us–whether or not you as an individual are a Zionist.  Those are two separate conversations that should happen internally and communally.  Good or bad Israel exists, which is like the woman who has given birth in our parasha (see note).  Whether we like it or not, the Torah has demanded that she make an offering because of the impurity she has contracted during labor.  I think, like with the offerings she is to give, we as community are too hesitant to offer praise, joy, and love for Israel–we certainly know of communities who fail in the opposite direction.  We should begin by offering blessings, which does not and cannot trivialize or gloss over its real failures–its impurities.  But let’s start by elevating this essential and miraculous development of Jewish history while always having an ever-present eye on its need for purification.

Note on portion:  On Shabbat one element of the portion that I discussed before the Torah reading, and alluded to in my talk, was that a woman was considered to have contracted impurity during labor.  After successfully giving birth to a child she must give two sacrifices:  an elevation offering and then a purification offering.  The Rabbis think this order should have been reversed–if she is impure, she should purify herself first and then give the elevation offering out of thanks and joy.  We discussed why the Torah seemingly got this wrong.  But perhaps she had to give an elevation offering first so that she could immediately feel loved and watched over by God and then ritually acknowledge her impurity–start with joy, blessing and thanks–and then move to her ritual status.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf