Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5783: In The Presence of Blood

הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ 

The blood is the life (Deut. 12.23)

Among other bodily fluids, the double parashah which is this week’s Torah reading, Tazria-Metzora, focuses upon blood. The blood of a woman giving birth is one of the most holy substances that exists. In our clumsy translations of the ancient Hebrew, we refer to that which is holy as that which “makes the hands unclean.” It is true of the blood of childbirth and it is also described by the Rabbis of the Talmud as the status of the Torah.

Clearly, ritual purity and impurity are not well understood by moderns. We’ve lost some essential thread along with our proclivity to turn away from the topics of sex and death as unsayable; we consign both to invisibility for anyone not intimately linked in the moment. That for sure was not our ancestors’ reality, and it has made it overwhelming for many of us to face blood.

Yet we are surrounded by blood these days, and not the kind which brings life, but rather its dread – and inevitable – other face. As of this morning, as I write, there have been one hundred and sixty three mass shootings in the United States in 2023. Surrounded by such a horrifying and overwhelming amount of bloodshed, we are numbed. Speechless. 

Our ancestors, who lived on a much smaller scale than we, saw any blood at all as a substance to be treated with great thoughtfulness and care. The blood of a sacrifice must be poured out, since it belongs to HaShem. The blood of childbirth must be respected as holy. 

From some great anthropological height of observation, all the bloodshed of wars and mass shootings and the individual murders that shake our hearts to tears must have some meaning. But from our human distance, it is nothing but overwhelming. Confounding. Heart-stopping.

We have no reasonable answers for those who defend the rights of gun owners and the immunity of gun sellers. We have no easy words for grieving parents or for children who must learn this generation’s form of duck and cover. For all this agony we have only this: ancient words of our people’s deep lived wisdom.

וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי זֶה דַּם הַפֶּסַח, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי זֶה דַּם הַמִּילָה.

“I passed you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, in your blood you shall live” (Ezekiel 16:6) – this is the blood of the paschal offering. “I said to you, in your blood you shall live” – this is the blood of circumcision.  – Shir haShirim Rabbah 5.2.2

If blood, the holiest substance of our lives, is to be shed, it should be shed in holiness. Blood, Ezekiel says, is meant as a sign of community, and of life. 

May we come to see this respect for every drop of human blood – of all blood and all life – manifest in our world. May our hands and our hearts stay strong for the work of bringing it about.


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