Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Tazria

By Shlomo Riskin

One of the greatest miracles of life is that of childbirth – and this Torah portion opens with the short state of impurity (bound up with the women’s and child’s close brush with death) and the much longer state of purity (because of the marvelous phenomenon of the continuity of life) that the mother must experience. The Bible also commands the mother to bring two sacrifices (obviously during Temple times): a whole burnt offering, symbolizing the fact that all of life ultimately belongs to God, and a sin offering, usually explained as being necessary in case the woman vowed never to become pregnant again while experiencing the pain of childbirth. What is strange about all this is that the mother is not commanded to give a thanksgiving offering, the most likely sacrifice one would expect to find in such a situation.

In addition, the general law regarding a thanksgiving offering is that it must be completely consumed on the day on which it is brought. The priests eat of it their allotted portion, those who bring it eat of it, and others in Jerusalem may be invited to eat of it – as long as it is consumed by the end of the first night. Since many wealthy people would bring especially generous thanksgiving offerings, and since the meat had to be consumed in one day, Josephus records that there was always plenty of free food offered in “Kiddushes” that were open to all. But the thanksgiving offering is merely one type of sacrifice subsumed under the more general category of peace offerings (shlamim) – and all of the other peace offerings, like those brought in payment of an oath, may be consumed for two days. Why only give the thanksgiving offering one day to be eaten?

To answer both these questions we must first review the biblical account of Elijah the Prophet on Mount Carmel. Elijah, sorely vexed by the multitude of Israelites following the pagan god Baal, arranged for a contest in front of 600,000 Israelites, involving 450 prophets of Baal versus the lone Elijah, on top of Mount Carmel. The prophets of each arranged their respective altars; the Baalists prayed, danced, sang and slashed their skin to their idol – but received neither answer nor response. Elijah turned heavenward saying: “’Answer me O God, answer me’… and a fire from the Lord descended and consumed the whole burnt offering…The entire nation saw, fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord He is God, the Lord He is God’…and they slaughtered the false prophets of Baal” (I Kings 18:37–40).

Tragically accurate is the response of Jezebel, wicked and idolatrous Queen of Israel, to Elijah: “At this time tomorrow I shall make your life like each of those [slaughtered prophets]” (ibid. 19:2). Why the next day, and not that very day? After all, the powerful and diabolical Queen Jezebel could just as easily have ordered an immediate execution for Elijah. But Jezebel understood that had she done so on the day of the miraculous occurrence, when Elijah was a national hero, she may well have faced an uprising. One day later, however, the miracle would have been forgotten, business would return to usual, and the wicked queen could do whatever she wanted to Elijah with impunity. Her words ring so true that Elijah flees to the desert and begs the Almighty to take his soul!

The Bible, as well as our own contemporary experiences, abound with supportive incidents to buttress Jezebel’s insight. Only three days after the miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea, the freed slaves again complain about the bitter waters at Mara. Only 40 days after the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites worship the golden calf. And, the day after the miraculous Six Day War and the liberation of Jerusalem, the Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel largely returned to “business as usual.” Indeed, Moshe Dayan, when he first visited the Western Wall, kissed its stones with such visible emotion that a reporter asked if he had become a “born-again Jew.” Dayan responded: “I was not religious yesterday and I will not be religious tomorrow. But at this moment, no one in Israel is more religious than I.”

This is how Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, famed 19th-century dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, answered our questions. It is sadly not within the nature of most people to sustain our feelings of thanksgiving; we are generally only concerned with what God has done for us lately – today. We easily forget God’s many bounties of yesterday. The offering for thanksgiving must therefore be consumed on the very day it was brought – by the next day, the feelings of gratitude will have dissipated. Since the woman may not offer a Temple sacrifice after childbirth until the periods of her impurity and purity have passed – 40 days for a male child and 80 days for a female child – she cannot be expected to bring a thanksgiving offering such a long time after the birth. By then she may be so overwhelmed with caring for her offspring that the initial joy of birth may have been forgotten.

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