This week, I write in memory of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a famous scholar and leader of the Jewish community, whose yahrzeit was this week.
In the double portion of Tazria-Metzora, having completed the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the inauguration of the Kohanim and the Mishkan itself, the Torah turns us to learning the laws of ritual purity (tuma) and impurity (tahara).
Many of these laws no longer apply, because we no longer have the Temple. The laws are confusing to us today. What does it mean to be pure and impure? Does it relate to our clothing being soiled? Is it like the idea of Clean in the Scout Law – to be clean in thought, word and deed?
The Torah talks about the impurity that relates to events like giving birth and the spiritual illness of tzaraas where the skin becomes discolored and flaky (often inaccurately described as leprosy) and even how tzaraas can be in clothing or a person’s home. It also describes how to become ritually pure again.
I get some help in understanding tuma and tahara by a commandment that seems out of place. Near the beginning of Tazria, at the start of the discussion of ritual cleanliness, God again instructs us on the mitzvah to circumcise infant boys (brit milah) on the eighth day after birth. We first received this commandment in Genesis (17:11-14). This time, in addition to the instruction that it be on the eighth day, we learn that the brit milah must be during daytime, when the Sun’s light can be seen (recall that in the Jewish calendar, days start at sundown).
There have been some some other interesting eighth days in the Torah. Adam received rest in the holiness of Shabbat on the seventh day, after having sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on the sixth day. With the new gift of fire from God at the beginning of the eighth day, Adam was able to enter the world of work with fire to help him, but it was up to him and all humanity after him to decide how to use fire – for good or evil. Last week, in Parasha Shemini, we learned of the inauguration of the Mishkan on the eighth day of celebration, with holy services dedicated to God. On that eighth day, the Jewish people showed they had decided to be loyal to God, which was in question because of the sin of the Golden Calf.
Now in Tazria we again learn that on the eighth day of a boy’s life, he is brought into the covenant Abraham made with God 3,700 years ago – the Jewish people will worship God and God will make them a great nation.
The number seven represents nature’s completion – God finished work on the universe in six days and completed the natural world by creating Shabbat for rest on the seventh day. So the number eight signifies something that transcends nature. A baby boy, having been with us for a week, on his eighth day has his brit milah to elevate him from the natural world to a spiritual level. So, too, Adam’s spirit was lifted by the gift of fire when used for good, and the Mishkan brought spirituality to the Jewish people. All these things occurred on an eighth day.
You often have a spiritual experience at the start of an eighth day – on a weekend campout. Saturday night, after a great Shabbat outdoors with your troop, as the darkness brings a new week, the embers of the campfire die out, the last notes of your closing song float away, your Scoutmaster gives you an inspirational thought, and you experience a wonderful spirit. Take that spirit home with you and pass it along to everyone you meet and use it in everything you do.
PS- We also include a dedication to the brave men and women who gave their lives to making and preserving the State of Israel, in honor of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), and to wish everyone a joyous Yom Ha’atzmaut(Independence Day).
Am Yisrael Chai – The Jewish People Live