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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria/Metzora: Purifying and rectifying towards Tikkun Olam
The Torah discusses the laws regarding the purity and impurity of a woman who has just given birth. "G'd did not give the commandments because He has a need for them, but in order to refine the Jewish people." On a deeper level Rabbi Chanania is teaching us that the purpose of the commandments is to purify and refine the Jewish people to develop into a holy nation. The counting of the Omer is a period of time when we should polish our character traits and refine ourselves to be worthy of accepting the Torah on the Festival of Shavuous. G'd specifically did not create the Jewish males perfect because He wanted that the final completion should be performed by man. It becomes the obligation of the Jewish community if parents are not in a position to circumcise or educate their children. The impurity after the sin of Adam and Eve affected the whole creation and parts of fruits and produce became inedible because of this impurity. When we observe the laws of circumcision and family purity we help to rectify the flaw of Adam and Eve. The Torah brings the laws of childbearing and circumcision together to teach us that these laws have a common source. By observing them we bring the world closer to the perfect tikkun olam with the coming of Mashiach.
Woman giving birth
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion it says (Vayikra 12:2-3) "A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male, and she will be impure for seven days … And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." The Torah continues and discusses the laws regarding the purity and impurity of the woman who has just given birth. Two questions arise from these passages. Childbearing is the fulfillment of the first commandment mentioned in the Torah (see Bereishis 1:28), so why would a woman become impure when she does her share of this commandment? Secondly, G'd already gave the commandment of circumcision to Abraham, as mentioned in Parashas Lech Lecha (see Bereishis 10-15), so why does the Torah discuss this commandment again in the middle of the portion dealing with a woman's status after child birth?
Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva
The Or HaChaim points out that the verse dealing with circumcision starts with the letter "Vav". This indicates a close connection between this verse and the preceding verse dealing with the impurity of a woman who has just given birth. He quotes the Midrash Tanchuma on this week's portion (para.5) that relates a conversation between the wicked Roman commander, Turnus Rufus, and Rabbi Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are more beautiful, the deeds of G'd or the deeds of man?" To this the Rabbi answered, "The deeds of man are more beautiful." This was obviously not the answer the Roman commander expected, but although his ploy to discredit the teachings of the Torah was spoiled by Rabbi Akiva, he nevertheless proceeded to ask what really was on his mind. "Why do you circumcise yourself?" Said Rabbi Akiva, "I knew this was on your mind and that is why I answered you the way I did." To prove his point, Rabbi Akiva produced some ears of corn and said, "This is the work of G'd." Then he brought out some small round cakes and said, 'This is the work of man. Are they not more beautiful than the ears of corn?" However, Turnus Rufus was not finished yet and continued to ask, "If G'd wants people to be circumcised, why does He not bring about that every male is born circumcised?" To this Rabbi Akiva answered, "G'd did not give the commandments because He wants them for His own need, but in order to refine the Jewish people." As King David says in Tehillim (18:31) "The saying of G'd is [for the purpose of] refinement."
Purify and refine
There is a widespread custom to recite Pirkei Avos at the end of the Shabbos afternoon prayer. In some congregations it is only recited during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuous. In other congregations it is recited all summer until Rosh Hashanah. We conclude every chapter of Pirkei Avos with an excerpt from the Talmud (Makkos 23b): "Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia says, 'The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to bring merit ["lezakot"} upon the world. Therefore, He gave them the Torah and the commandments in abundance." The simple meaning of this is that every word of Torah that we study and every commandment we fulfill is a merit for us. In His great love for the Jewish people G'd gave us an infinite Torah with 613 commandments to provide us with an abundance of merits. However, the Hebrew word "lezakot" can also be translated as "to purify". Says Rabbi Eliahu Lopian, on a deeper level Rabbi Chanania is teaching us that the purpose of the Torah and the commandments is to purify and refine the Jewish people to develop into a holy nation.
Polish our character
With this insight we can well understand the custom of reciting Pirkei Avos during the period of the counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuous. In Pirkei Avos the rabbis of the Mishnah teach us how to conduct ourselves in any given situation in a refined way. Throughout this period of time we are expected to polish our character traits and refine ourselves to be worthy of accepting the Torah on the Festival of Shavuous. As the Kabbalists explain, the Hebrew word for counting "Sefirot" is connected to the word "sapphire stone", indicating that this is the time for polishing our "gem" of a soul (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: Counting the "Sefirah", polishing the sapphire and emulating the Sefirot, May 11, 2006)
This concept, that the purpose of the commandments is to refine the Jewish people, especially manifests itself in the commandment of circumcision. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 2) explains that G'd specifically does not create the Jewish males perfect as He wants the final completion to be performed by man. This is to indicate that just as we have to complete the physical body ourselves, so too we are obligated to complete our spiritual being by conducting ourselves in the proper manner, according to the Torah's instructions.
Obligation of Jewish community
In this connection it is interesting to note that the commandment of circumcision primarily falls upon the parents of the child, corresponding to the fact that they are the primary educators of the child. However, if for any reason the parents are not in a position to fulfill their obligation, it falls upon the Jewish community to see to it that the newborn male should be circumcised. Similarly, if the parents are not in a position to educate their children, it is the obligation of the Jewish community to take care of the educational needs of this unfortunate child. Finally, if for some reason the child grew up without having been circumcised, as he comes of age and turns Bar Mitzvah he is now obligated himself to make sure that he undergoes circumcision. Corresponding to this, any Jewish child who grew up without a Jewish education is personally obligated to seek whatever information he is lacking and learn Torah and its commandments.
Inedible fruits and produce
The Or HaChaim explains that that there is a deeper understanding to Rabbi Akiva's answer to Turnus Rufus than first meets the eye. He quotes from our sages that the first man, Adam, was originally created circumcised. Only after he and Eve sinned, did his foreskin grow. At the same time, Eve started having her periods that would render her impure at any natural bleeding in her reproductive system. This impurity affected the whole of creation and parts of fruits and produce became inedible because of this. As a matter of fact, all evil and impurity in the world are a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. It is our obligation as their descendants to rectify their sin by fulfilling the commandments of the Torah and thereby bringing the world to Tikkun Olam.
Rectify the sin
The Zohar explains that the ten activities needed to produce any baked goods, as mentioned in the Talmud (Shabbos 73a), correspond to the ten curses that G'd inflicted upon the earth after the sin of Adam and Eve (see Bereishis 3:17-19). This was the deeper intent of Rabbi Akiva when he compared the ears of corn to the small cakes. He wanted to show that the sin of Adam and Eve had brought about a situation where G'd only provided the raw material. In order for man to enjoy and benefit from it he would have to toil by the "sweat of his brow" (Bereishis 3:19) and go through these ten activities. Rabbi Akiva further explained that G'd's purpose with the commandments was to give man activities that will refine his personality. Since the sin of Adam and Eve, every person is born with an evil inclination, as it says (Bereishis 8:21) "For the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth." The sole antidote to this evil is the Torah and its commandments. As the Talmud (Kidushin 30b) states, "So says G'd to the Jewish people, 'My children, I have created you with an evil inclination and have created the Torah as a remedy against it.'" As such, the purpose of circumcision is only for man's benefit; it has absolutely no effect on G'd whether a man is circumcised or not. G'd wanted to give us the opportunity to purify ourselves and the world around us through observing the commandments and in that way rectify the sin of Adam and Eve. He especially designed every male with a foreskin that represents the impurity to give us the opportunity to remove it. Would G'd have removed the foreskin prior to birth, the removal would have had absolutely no purpose.
Concludes the Or HaChaim, this is the connection between the commandment of circumcision and the laws concerning the impurity of a woman after childbirth. Both of these are consequences of the impurity brought about by the sin of Adam and Eve. The Torah brings the laws of these two commandments together in this week's portion to teach us of their common source. By observing these laws we help to rectify the flaw of Adam and Eve and bring the world closer to the perfect tikkun olam with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network