The name for this week’s parasha, Tazria (“in childbirth”), re-introduces the reader to the challenging concept of ritual impurity/uncleanliness. In our modern life, this designation and any sense of its relevancy can seem like quite a stretch. As the Torah describes, a state of “uncleanness” results from close encounters with reproductive fluids, reproduction, caring for the dead, or sickness. G!D then goes on to provide a set of instructions and community rules when (not if!) these things occur in one’s life, as well as a prescribed purification ritual as a path for returning back to a state of ritual purity/cleanliness.
One of the main consequences of being in a state of impurity/uncleanliness is that it results in some type of separation from the routines and activities of everyday life. For instance, there’s a designated period of time after a new mother delivers her child that she is separated from a state of purity; similarly, after one spends time caring for a dying individual. During these “time-outs,” these individuals are prohibited from either going into sacred spaces (i.e., the sanctuary) or participating in sacred rituals (i.e., sacrificial offerings).
As the notes on Tazria in Etz Hayim explain, this is not to be viewed as a punishment; rather it can also be understood to affirm a kind of closeness to G!D – a sacred space with G!D – that everyday life does not afford. It can serve as a reminder about the sacred space within the confines of our bodies. These designations and strictures underscore that we are tied to our bodies, but our bodies are not entirely ours. More so, ultimately, we don’t have total control over how our bodies function.
The commentary contrasts this with the role and function of the Sanctuary, a sacred space with G!D. Sanctuaries these days are generally pristine, spacious areas where one can come and go freely. They have the potential to invite encounters with the holy, but may also remind us of our distance from God, our lack of spiritual intimacy.
Between the sanctity of our bodies and the sanctity of holy spaces and rituals, everyone is provided with a sacred space with G!D, but neither Moses nor the (Etz Hayim) editing rabbis fully explain why such a firm boundary is established to limit any mixing (i.e., why can’t a new mother bring her holiness to a holy place?)
So you might ask: what happens if a person in a state of impurity walks into the sacred space of the Sanctuary? We’re not sure; but maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking. If we recognize that the experiences resulting in ritual impurity (illness, death, reproduction, etc.) may also be opportunities for closer connection with G!D, then maybe the boundaries and separations that are established are in the service of reinforcing (or even protecting) the preciousness of this experience. Perhaps God doesn’t want us to run away from being present for the pain, the joy, and the closeness that these life experiences engender in us; demand from us.
Our tradition instructs us to engage in Holy activities at Holy times in Holy spaces. It affirms that Holiness is intrinsic to who we are, regardless of the specific actions, times, and places. It also assures us that Holiness exists outside of ourselves, and it’s in the communal moments commanded in Torah that we’re invited to pay attention to and to be present for this type of sacredness. We know it’s a both/and. G!D apparently wants us to do both. In proper measure. Within boundaries. G!D’s way.
Sigh. This is the privilege/obligation (two sides of the same coin) of our life: that each of us must attend to and lean in to, explore and cultivate our relationship with G!D as well as our life’s contribution to the corner of the Universe we inhabit. May we be blessed this week to be present in Sacred Space, wherever we are.
Chaplain Adam Siegel