Monday, March 31, 2008

Parshat Tazria 1

Click on the link for a fantastic dvar Torah that I translated from Pri Tzadik Tazria

Here is a dvar Torah I wrote a few years ago (and in that year Tazria fell out after Pesach)

Last week's Torah reading ended with the laws of ritual purity and impurity caused by animals. This week continues with the laws about human purity and impurity. The Midrash notes that the order is the same as that of creation, where humans came after other life already existed:

"You [G-d] have created me after and before, and have laid Your hand upon me." (Tehillim 139; 4). Reish Lakish said, "After" refers to the last day of creation, "Before" refers to the first day. [where the verse hints to the human soul with the words], "The spirit of the L-rd hovered over the face of the water". If a person merits they say to them, 'You were created before everything else in existence', but if not they say to them, 'A mosquito was created before you'. Rabbi Simlai said, 'Just as humans were created after animals and birds, so too the laws [of purity] of people follow those of animals and birds'.

Reish Lakish's cryptic statement can be understood by recognising that a person is made up of two opposites, a spiritual soul and a physical body. These two are in constant conflict, each pursuing its own desires. The soul yearns for the spiritual delights of drawing close to G-d through performing mitzvot and studying Torah. The body wants physical pleasures, chasing after money, food and physical comforts. In certain areas of our lives the soul has control, in others the body. The point of intersection between the two is where we have free choice to follow either path.

Reish Lakish explains that though the physical body was not created until the end of the sixth day of creation, the soul was present from the first. Therefore if a person follows their spiritual urges seeking to draw closer to G-d, they are defined by their soul and to them it may be said, 'You were created before anything else...'. However, if a person's decisions are made by the body and its physical desires, the soul is less discernible, and therefore they are reminded that their body was created after even the insects.

The higher the spiritual potential of something, the greater is the risk of spiritual impurity. Minerals have no soul, and therefore do not impart impurity. The vegetable kingdom has a lowly form of soul, which allows growth and movement. Animals have a higher soul, which permits thought and instinct. Humans have the highest level of soul, which is described in Jewish literature as the level of speech.

The source of impurity is the body, which leads the soul away from G-d. A newborn baby is full of potential, but this is only realised over time as it is governed less by bodily urges and needs. Therefore birth, which is the completion of the physical body imparts impurity.

It is appropriate that we read this portion so soon after Pesach, the time of the birth of the nation. Similarly the counting of the Omer, of which we are in the midst, ties in with the concept of 'Before' and 'After'. The Jews in Egypt had reached the lowest level of spiritual impurity, to the point that had they remained there even a moment longer they would have lost their spirituality completely, and thus been unable to leave. Yet after counting seven weeks they had reached the level of spiritual perfection where they could experience the revelation of G-d at Mount Sinai. In a sense this self-perfection is the inverse of G-d's creation. G-d first created the soul, and then placed it within the body which draws it away from its true purpose. The Israelite nation elevated their physical bodies to the heights of spiritual perfection.

Each year we are able to relive this growth through the counting of the Omer. The Torah commands us to count from the "day after Shabbat", which refers to the first day of Pesach. Shabbat is both the beginning of the coming week, and the end of the previous week. It is the 'Seventh day' and yet within it we find the spiritual sustenance to get us through the next week. By calling Pesach 'Shabbat' the Torah is telling us that Pesach was both the starting point from which to grow to spiritual heights, and the goal for which we aimed. The Jews were involved in physical labour that gave them no opportunity for spiritual growth. Yet they witnessed G-d's hand in Egypt, the direct revelation that they were to experience again at Mount Sinai. They entire nation was as a newborn baby, full of as yet unrealised potential, redeemed by G-d in the merit of the spiritual heights that they would reach in the future.

Just as the nation experienced spiritual growth during these weeks, we can use this same time period for our own individual growth, in preparation for our personal acceptance of the Torah at Shavuot. We count each day and week to chart the incremental spiritual growth, leading to the fulfillment of our potential.

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