Parshas Tazria – Tzaraas takes us all the way back to Gan Eden

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

In last week’s פרשה we had the story of the death of the 2 sons of Aharon, and then the topic changes to kosher vs. non-kosher animals. This weeks פרשה begins with the laws of a woman after childbirth, and then deals with a מצורע along with other spiritual illnesses that cause a person to have bodily emissions.

Many times, מפרשים ask in general why two stories are placed next to each other, but here the question is stronger. Because right after we finish פרשת מצורע, we read the פרשה titled אחרי מות שני בני אהרן, and the Torah goes back to Hashem telling Aharon how to repair what his sons did wrong and explains the correct way for Aharon to enter the קדש הקדשים. Almost as though while we are learning about the death of אהרן’s sons we get a commercial break of sorts. But the Torah doesn’t have commercial breaks, which means that these פרשיות and topics need to be right here, and we wouldn’t understand the story of the death of נדב and אביהו and the repercussions of their death unless we know about kosher, childbirth, and צרעת. What is the meaning behind this?

To understand this connection, I think we need to look deeper into what the story of נדב and אביהו reminds you of. Their story took place after the 7 days of inaugurating the משכן, followed by Aharon blessing the nation. Then נדב and אביהו get too close to Hashem, bring a fire that they were not commanded to bring, and then they die. Lastly, their cousins are told to take their bodies מחוץ למחנה.

There is somewhere else in the Torah where we find all these elements. A concept of 7 days followed by a blessing. Then 2 people overstep a boundary that was meant to separate them from Hashem by doing something which they were commanded not to do. This other story also has an element of death and the aggressors of the sin are sent outside their camp. Did you guess yet? I am referring to the story of Adam and Chava in גן עדן. We have the 7 days of creation, Hashem blesses creation, then אדם and חוה eat from the fruit of the tree about which the נחש said that if they eat “והייתם כאלקים” there was one tree that was off limits, it was “Hashem’s tree” and they wanted to take just one step closer. Hashem says ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות, and אדםand חוה are banished from גן עדן, a “מחוץ למחנה” of sorts.

The words used in these stories are also reminiscent of each other. The verbs of ויקח and ויתן seem typical but they are used in conjunction with each other only a handful of times in the Torah. By נדב and אביהו it says ויקחו … איש מחתתו ויתנו בהן אש and by גן עדן it says ותקח מפריו … ותתן גם לאישה, and in both cases they did something which was not commanded, and in both cases it says אשר לא צוה, and although it says the word צוה hundreds of times in the Torah, we only hear about something that was not commanded 3 times in the entire Torah (the third is when Moshe tells the nation to avoid עבודה זרה which was not commanded). 

The theme of both sins is that there is a paradox that exists with getting close to Hashem. Hashem is an “אש אוכלה” yet in a mind-blowing way it is possible for us to get close to Him, but only if we listen to the rules that He sets into place. Hashem allowed them to eat from all the trees in the garden but only if we can recognize that there is one tree that is off limits. נדב and אביהו were allowed to stay in the משכן and be with Hashem, but when they tried to enter the קדש הקדשים when they were not commanded to, they were burnt and killed. Our relationship with Hashem needs to be governed strictly by the rules that He puts into place.

Now that we know this connection, we can follow the parallels in each story to help us understand why we need the digression of kosher, childbirth, and צרעת.

Immediately following the story of the עץ הדעת there are 3 different curses. The נחש gets toldעל גחונך תלך, חוהgets told בעצב תלדי בנים, and אדם gets told ארורה האדמה בעבוריך. The theme of all 3 is death, but not full-on death, it’s more covert than that. They experienced an undercover death, that day was the day that they became mortal beings.

More specifically, the נחש lost his arms, legs, and some element of intellectual capability that he possessed before the sin, a part of him died that day. As חוה would bring life into the world, she would experience sadness and depression, a diminishing of the life-giving process. And אדם is told you will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the earth, for you were taken from the earth and it is to there that you shall return. And it was that curse of death that imposes itself on the world till this very day.

Correspondingly, we have 3 topics after the death of נדבand אביהו that also have a message of death as an undertone. First, we are told that we must restrict what we eat, and not consume certain animals. When the Torah tells us not to eat a snake it makes sure to mention כל הולך על גחון, an exact mirror of the curse that the primordial snake received. The laws of kosher all come into play after we have killed an animal, death is not in the spot light, but it is a prelude or an impetus to bring the laws of kosher into the picture.

After that we hear about the laws of a lady who gives birth, which is clearly connected to חוה’s curse that birth would be a painful process. And as much as birth is the beginning of life, there is an element of death as well. During the pregnancy, the child exists completely as one with the mother. The mother feels the child’s movements and heartbeat, the child is sustained from the mother, mother’s heartbeat, muscle movements, and blood flow are the music that the fetus hears for 9 months. Then, suddenly all that changes, and the survival systems that the child used in the womb are drastically rotated 180 degrees and the fetus dies while a newborn child begins to live.

And finally, we hear about the מצורע, the leper. This is one of the rare laws where we actually have an example of an action play of those laws in the Torah itself, at the end of פרשת בהעלותך, Miriam speaks about Moshe and she gets צרעת. Aharon asks Moshe to daven for her, and his language is אל נא תהי כמת אשר בצאתו מרחם אמו, do not let her be like a stillborn as it leaves from its mother’s womb. And to parallel with the 3rd curse of אדם, the Torah neatly starts the laws of מצורע out by saying, אדםכי יהיה בעור בשרו. And aside from the example of Miriam, the specific laws echo death as well. The sign of a מצורעis white skin, just like a corpse. If the hairs coming out of the צרעת are white, he is טמא since the sustenance that the hair had been receiving is dead. The מצורע needs to act like a mourner during his week in quarantine. And even if the skin on the surface looks alive, if there are indications that the skin underneath is dead, then he is טמא, again we see a theme of unnoticeable death.

2,449 years after mankind got banished from a dwelling place with God, the Jews build the משכן, so that God can come into our midst and we can once again dwell with Him. But once again two individuals made the mistake of overstepping their boundaries and the 3 curses need to come back. But this time, they are listed as laws for a nation to follow as opposed to curses that the world would be affected by. These concepts become part of the dedication of the משכן since in order to survive with Hashem we need to internalize this message.I think that the Torah is trying to teach us that even as we are feeling extremely close to Hashem and even as we feel the love from Hashem which knows no bounds we should remember that there is a danger with coming too close or acting in a way that is not commanded. Yet strangely, at the same time, even the death itself that is associated with the curses which come after “coming too close” there is a life aspect from within the death in all these laws in our פרשה. Animals and plants must die in order to sustain us, but if we keep the laws of kosher that death will allow for our physical and spiritual development and life. Birth has a death element but is ultimately a purely joyous occasion. And even צרעת, as sad as it is that this person must sit in excommunication for 1-2 weeks, they are doing so because of a negative action, and after that introspective time, that person can re-enter into society and experience a “rebirth” into the community. 

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