Why we don’t edit the Torah
Parshat Tazria Leviticus, 12:1-13:59; Numbers 28:9-15, Exodus 12:1-20
Don’t you wish you could edit out the things in your life that you don’t like? Wouldn’t it be nice to go back and somehow erase that fantastically embarrassing incident that happened in eighth grade or flick a switch that would make your spouse put his/her dishes in the dishwasher instead of in the sink or resolve that intractable family dispute? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have exactly the existence that you want, surrounded by exactly the right people in exactly the right circumstances?
This desire is, of course, heightened by our digital tools today: We read only the news we want to read, listen to only the songs we want to hear, friend only the acquaintances we want to friend. But that is not real. Life is not sterile, and it is far more all-encompassing. We take the good with the not-so-good, the satisfying with the bothersome, the pleasurable with the painful.
While there are many things in the Torah with which I struggle, I must confess that Parashat Tazria is among the most challenging. Most of it (Leviticus Chapter 13) is about an unidentifiable skin disease (although some older translations, most notably the classic Hertz humash, translated the Hebrew term “tzara’at” as “leprosy,” it is quite clear that the affliction described is not what today is known as Hansen’s disease). The brief part of the parashah that does not concern tzara’at (Leviticus 12) is hardly better; it specifies that a woman who gives birth to a girl has a period of ritual impurity that is twice as long as the one who gives birth to a boy. Ouch.
We can respond by throwing up our hands in disgust or by perhaps indulging in apologetics. Or maybe we can look past the inherent sexism of the Torah (an unfortunate given although clearly related to the time in which the text of the Torah unfolded) to see if we can uncover something meaningful to us.
Every such challenge is an opportunity. We are, after all, Yisrael — the people who struggle with God; it is the name given to Jacob following his encounter with the angel in Genesis 32. And we struggle not only with God, but also with our holy texts. It is this struggle, the ongoing interpretation and reinterpretation and argument and dissent and quest for meaning in every generation that are integral to Talmud Torah, Jewish learning, that has maintained us as Jews since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
Perhaps what we might learn from Parashat Tazria is completely outside the text itself. Perhaps the message is that it is our duty to keep reading it and to keep thinking, “Ouch.” Thank God that we do not live in a world in which we think that a baby girl brings twice as much tum’ah, impurity; thank God that we live in a society in which being a woman does not disqualify one from being president of the United States; and thank God that we live in a society in which a woman, when called to the Torah, is counted equally under Jewish law.
Pulling back the lens, we might acknowledge that to appreciate the good things in our lives, we must have the unpleasant experiences with which to compare them. That horrible, painful rejection by the object of your affection in high school makes you love your spouse that much more today. The crushing loss of a departed relative, given some time and distance, enriches your life by urging you to recall the wisdom, love and support she/he gave you and that you in turn share with your children and grandchildren.
And so we continue to reread, struggle with and reinterpret not only the challenging parts of our ancient texts, but also the texts of our lives. That is what makes us feel complete, reminding us of what is truly valuable.
Rabbi Seth Adelson is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.