Please note: Starting this Shabbat and continuing for the next month, the Torah readings within Israel and outside Israel will be out of sync with one another. The reason is that outside of Israel, last Shabbat was still part of Pesah and so required the special Torah reading for the eighth day of that festival. Within Israel, by contrast, there is no eighth day of Pesah. As a consequence, last week was just an ordinary Shabbat and the Torah portion Shemini was read.
For this reason, I plan on posting two separate comments on the Torah reading, one for people in Israel and one for people outside. This is scheduled to last until May 16, when equilibrium is restored.
In Israel this week, the reading is Tazri’a-Metsora :
This week’s double reading (Tazri’a-Metsora) opens with an unusual law: “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she will be ritually impure for seven days; just as with the period of her menstruation, so will she be ritually impure. On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised… But if she gives birth to a female child, she will be ritually impure for two weeks, as in [the ritual impurity of] her menstruation” (Lev 12:1-5).
Interpreters have been puzzled by this distinction—one week of ritual impurity if the mother has a son, two weeks if she has a daughter. Does a daughter’s birth require twice as much purification time for the mother as a son’s because a daughter by nature imparts more impurity? Or is the fact that the newborn son is circumcised on the eighth day somehow decisive, ending the mother’s ritual impurity a week before a daughter’s birth? Or is this, as some feminist interpreters have suggested, just another case of gender discrimination?
An interesting explanation comes from an under-appreciated source—the book of Jubilees, a book written by an unknown Jewish author toward the end of the biblical period (probably sometime around the year 200 BCE). The author says it all has to do with Adam and Eve.
The Torah seems to give two different accounts of the creation of humanity. In chapter 1 of Genesis, it says that “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). But chapter 2 goes on to relate that God first created Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden. Only later, when a female equivalent (‘ezer kenegdo) could not be found, did God take Adam’s “rib” or “side” and shape it into a woman. So what really happened—were Adam and Eve created simultaneously, or was Adam created first and Eve shaped out of part of Adam’s body?
The book of Jubilees suggests that the Torah is reporting on a two-step creation. In the first step, God did indeed create all of humanity, “male and female He created them,” but the female part was left inside the male, a little pouch somewhere in the male’s “side.” This all took place on the sixth day of the world’s first week (Gen 1:31). Then came the seventh day, the first Sabbath. In the week hat followed, the second step occurred. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18), so He anesthetized Adam with a “deep sleep” (Gen 2:21), pulled the pouch out of Adam’s side, and turned the female homunculus (homuncula?) into a full-sized human being: Eve.
All this happened, Jubilees is careful to assert, on the sixth day of the second week. If so, then the law of ritual impurity after childbirth precisely mirrors these events: Adam was created on the sixth day of the first week, and in commemoration of this fact, a mother who gives birth to a male child is ritually impure for a single week. Eve, by contrast, was not fully created until the sixth day of the second week, so in commemoration of that fact, a mother who gives birth to a female child is ritually impure for two weeks.
Outside Israel, the reading is Shemini :
Why were Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, struck dead in the desert tabernacle (mishkan)? Everything was all set for the inauguration of regular sacrificial worship in the mishkan, and then this tragedy—why?
The Torah seems to suggest several answers. To begin with, it says that Nadab and Abihu had brought a “foreign fire” (esh zara)—apparently, an incense offering—into the mishkan just before the incident. This might mean that they brought their incense offering to the innermost part of the mishkan, where it was indeed foreign, that is, where it did not belong. Or perhaps their offering was foreign in the sense that the coals that they had put in their incense pans had come from an ordinary “outside” source rather than from the incense altar itself. Perhaps they had somehow omitted from, or added to, the required ingredients of an incense offering, or had put the proper ingredients in the wrong proportion—either way making their incense “foreign.”
Then again, it might be Nadab and Abihu were drunk, or even just a little tipsy, at the time. After all, not long afterwards, God says to Aaron, “Do not drink wine or any other liquor, you and your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die” (Lev 10:8). Was not this a subtle hint as to the cause of Aaron’s two sons’ death?
Whatever the precise reason, or combination of reasons, what seems most significant is what Moses says to Aaron immediately after his sons have been struck dead: “This is what the Lord [intended by] saying: ‘I will be sanctified by those close to Me, and I will be honored before all the people.’ And Aaron kept still.” Apparently, this is the lesson of the whole incident. But what do these words mean exactly?
“Those close to Me” refers to the kohanim, the priests who bring offerings in the mishkan and are closest to the Holy of Holies. (Ezek 42:13 similarly refers to “the kohanim who are close to the Lord.”) If so, I think a somewhat freer, but clearer, translation might be: “This is what the Lord [intended by] saying: ‘If the kohanim respect My sanctity, then I will be honored by all the people.’” For whatever reason, Nadab and Abihu did not respect God’s sanctity, and this had consequences for the whole nation. The reason is that the people charged with being the closest to God are therefore held to a very high standard. If they are not meticulous in observing all the laws and restrictions connected with God’s sanctity (laws of ritual purity, all the regulations governing the offering of sacrifices, laws of marriage, and so forth), then how can the rest of people, watching from the sidelines, be expected to honor God properly? That was what Moses said to Aaron, and Aaron knew that he was right, so he remained silent and did not offer a word of protest.
It is difficult to read all this without thinking that it has a message for people today. Those “closest to God,” who in our day should be our rabbis and scholars and others who act as religious spokesmen, are likewise to be held to the highest standards. In reality, however, the opposite often seems to be the case. How many such leaders nowadays end up in court or in jail, convicted of theft on a massive scale, or simply of abusing their office for personal gain? (As I write these lines, yet one more rabbi has just been convicted; in his case, he has been found guilty of bribery and obstruction of justice—all this as part of a plea bargain! The newspapers say that despite the plea bargain, he will probably still end up serving some jail time.)
How many others have sought to justify these acts of thievery because they were done “for a good cause,” bilking the government out of millions in order to support this or that yeshiva or network of schools, or to pay for some other thing they that deem worthwhile? The case of Nadab and Abihu ought to give them pause. Even if they haven’t committed an actual crime, have they really upheld the standard of “I will be sanctified by those close to Me”?
And how many, many, more are guilty of no more than keeping silent—not the silence of Aaron, who accepted the justice of Moses’ words, but just the silence of the uninvolved, people who are themselves frum Jews and may feel a little embarrassed by all this (if for no other reason than for what they have studied in Gemara), but who think their first duty is to close ranks and defend “us” from outsiders. I myself say nothing most of the time, and I certainly don’t intend these weekly comments on the Torah reading to be anything more than explanations of the Torah’s words. But sometimes the words themselves make it hard to keep still.