There is an age-old tradition that when we begin the Book of Leviticus, rabbis bring scholars-in-residence to speak so they don’t have to give sermons on the sacrificial system, ritual purity/impurity and various skin ailments. Never did I imagine that this week of all weeks, I would be J.’s scholar-in-residence for this Torah commentary … Oy! Well, here goes nothing.
Parashat Tazria describes what the Torah refers to as tum’ah, uncleanness or being impure, and taharah, ritual purity. The ritual category of tum’ah has a negative stigma that connotes being dirty, sick, coming in contact with blood, or an association with disease and death.
More complicated is that people in a state of tum’ah are quarantined from the community while they go through a repurification process to “re-enter/reintegrate” with society (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary on Tazria, 649). While there is much to be said about what causes impurity, I want to focus on the role of the Kohen/priest in this process.
Parashat Tazria starts with the purification of a mother immediately after childbirth. The text reads, “On the completion of her period of purification … she shall bring to the priest … a purification offering … The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be pure” (Leviticus 12:6, 8).
While this is somewhat troubling, I’m struck by the role of the priest, the individual who restores order and peace to the community.
Rabbi Shelly Lewis, author and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, pointed me to a very interesting interpretation of the entire sacrificial/purity code of Leviticus. A teaching in the name of Rabbi Ishmael says: “There are 13 things that God loves and calls them His: the priests, the Levites, Israel, the Sanhedrin [rabbinic court], the firstborn, the offerings for the Tabernacle, the sacrifices, the anointing oil, the land of Israel, the Temple, the kings of the House of David, the silver, and the gold” (Torah of Reconciliation, 189).
This list connects nicely to Temple worship, everything from the individual players to the materials used for this holy space. The teaching of Rabbi Ishmael then provides a biblical proof-text demonstrating why each of these 13 things was selected. At the end, the Mishnah adds a lone verse from the Prophet Isaiah: “If one would find strength in my strength, he would make peace with Me; he would make peace with Me” (Isaiah 27:5). Why does this verse appear at the end of this lengthy teaching?
Rabbi Lewis notes that various “people, places, objects, and values are beloved to God … All are central. In these chapters of Leviticus, the functioning of the priest, the sacrifices, and the Tabernacle are very prominent, appearing in almost every verse in one form or another. Yet, even in such company, the quest for peace is paramount … when the quest for peace is pitted against other cherished values and objects, peace supersedes” (190).
I agree with Rabbi Lewis that peace can far surpass the materialistic things that we have in life. But I want to take this idea a step further.
The priest was not simply a go-between for the people to God but, rather, a stabilizing force in their most vulnerable moments of life: post-pregnancy, when suffering from illness or disease, or after losing a loved one and grieving — moments associated with impurity. Yes, the Torah sees these times of transition as being in a state of tum’ah, necessitating isolation and healing.
At the same time, when feeling estranged and weak, the priest had the chance to be a powerful presence for those yearning for connection. The priest created a sense of stability and hope for someone on the outside to begin healing and to feel supported while striving for physical and spiritual well-being and fullness.
While antiquated, perhaps this system served as the foundation for visiting the sick and the dying and comforting the grieving. It is only in our coming together in moments of sickness, brokenness and impurity that we, like the priests, can create a path for healing and sacredness to re-emerge, paving the way for that wholeness, that shalom, peace.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.