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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, so that we 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 Shavuous. G'd specifically did not create the Jewish males perfect because He wants that the final completion shall be performed by the parents. If parents are not in a position to circumcise or educate their children, it becomes the obligation of the Jewish community. The impurity after the sin of Adam and Eve affected the entire 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 parasha 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 teaches the laws of purity and impurity of a woman who gives birth. Two questions arise from this. Childbearing is the fulfillment of the first commandment mentioned in the Torah (see Bereishis 1:28), so why does a woman become impure when she fulfills her part 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 repeat this commandment again in the middle of 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 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 parasha (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?" Rabbi Akiva 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 your sons?" 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 for His 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 between Pesach and Shavuous. In other congregations it is recited 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 Jewish people. Therefore, He gave them the Torah and the commandments in abundance." The simple meaning 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 help us develop into a holy nation.
Polish our character
With this insight we can gain a better understanding of the custom to recite 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, we are expected to polish our character traits and refine ourselves to be worthy to accept the Torah on Shavuous. As the Kabbalists explain, counting "Sefirah" is connected to the "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 19, 2016).
This concept, that the purpose of the commandments is to refine the Jewish people, especially manifests itself by circumcision. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 2) explains that G'd specifically does not want Jewish boys to be born circumcised, as He wants the parents to complete and perfect their newborn son. This indicates that just as they have to complete their child's physical body, so too they shall educate him and complete his spiritual being by teaching him how to conduct himself according to the Torah.
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 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 community to take care of their educational needs. Finally, if for some reason the child was not circumcised, when he turns Bar Mitzvah, he is obligated to make sure that he undergoes circumcision. Corresponding to this, a Jewish child, who grew up without a Jewish education, is obligated to seek the knowledge he is lacking and learn Torah to the best of his ability.
Inedible fruits and produce
The Or HaChaim explains that that there is more to Rabbi Akiva's answer to Turnus Rufus than first meets the eye. He quotes from our sages that Adam was created circumcised. Only after he and Eve sinned, did his foreskin grow. At the same time, Eve started having her periods. This caused her to become impure at the time of any natural bleeding in her reproductive system. This impurity affected the entire 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 Adam and Eve's sin. It is our obligation, as their descendants, to rectify their sin by fulfilling the commandments of the Torah and thereby bringing about Tikkun Olam.
Rectify the sin
The Zohar explains that the ten activities needed to produce any baked goods, from sowing to the actual baking (see 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 brought about that G'd only provides the raw material. In order for man to enjoy and benefit from it, he has to toil by the "sweat of his brow" (Bereishis 3:19) and go through these ten activities. Rabbi Akiva further explained that the purpose of the commandments is to refine our personalities. Since the sin of Adam and Eve, we are all 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, circumcision is for our benefit; it has obviously no effect on G'd whether a boy is circumcised or not. G'd wants to give us the opportunity to purify ourselves and the world around us through observing the commandments, and with that to rectify the sin of Adam and Eve. He especially designed every male to be born with a foreskin that represents the impurity to give us the opportunity to remove it. Would G'd cause the foreskin to disappear prior to birth, it would have 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 Adam and Eve's sin. The Torah brings these two commandments together 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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