The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.
This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.
It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.
What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.
It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.
You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,
When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem,
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)
Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.
|אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם.||Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.|
|כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.||For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.|
|וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.||The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.|
This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture.
Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?
It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur).
When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.
But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor, “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.
The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.
Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci. Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third. The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?”
The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”
2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.
The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.
Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.
The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.
May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.
This week’s double parashah reflects a fundamental understanding of ancient Israelite religion – and we are not sure that we know what it is. Between parashat Tazria and parashat Metzora, we are presented for four solid chapters of VaYikra (Leviticus) with rules of what anthropologist Mary Douglas called “purity and danger” in her book of the same name.
The guidance presented by Torah in these verses (12.1-15.33) separates the tamey from the tahor, two categories that are unhelpfully translated as “pure” and “impure” when in truth the situation is more complicated than that. In her examination of the religious laws which include this as well that other famous duality of Jewish law (kosher or not), Douglas insists that we regard these ideas not with the dismissive superiority of moderns but with what I like to think of as a post-modern curiosity about that which is not yet understood. These ideas should be approached as “a shorthand summary of the categories of Israelite culture….taken as a whole and related to the totality of symbolic structures organizing the universe.” (Douglas, Natural Symbols, 60).
At a glance, even the most casual, it is not difficult to detect the ancient Israelites’ desire to keep the world ordered and coherent. One is always in either a state of being which is tamey or tahor. The activities and situations which cause one to be tamey are neither bad nor to be avoided, and they are not associated with sin. They include birth, death, sex, and food, among other basics of human life.
Most interesting is the requirement for “time out” in between the two states of being. For example: if one is in a state of being tamey because one has been ill with a contagious disease, one is required, for the good of the community, to be isolated for a specific time. When one is no longer showing signs, one is expected to return to one’s former place. In other parts of VaYikra the same rule applies to one who has been in the presence of death: one takes time away from the community, and then returns to one’s “normal” social existence.
One of the great gifts of Jewish tradition is its insistence that we take time to recover from our experiences, and that certain situations carry certain ordered and religiously-mandated responses. Since the effect of illness or grief is often to cause us to feel isolated, there is a simple logic to the ancient Israelites’ understanding that the sense of isolation might be acted out and respected. One is given a specific pattern of behaviors to follow to help one move through the experience, and its aftermath.
Since at the end of the “time out”, the Israelite is once again able to enter the sacred grounds and stand before G-d, we might understand one possible interpretation of the terms tamey and tahor to be “spiritually unready” and “spiritually ready”. Certainly we all feel the need sometimes to “take a break” from the community’s expectations of us – that might be our time of spiritual unreadiness. If so, what might be a relevant way for we moderns to move through the experience so that we can return to “normal”, and our beloved companions on our journey? Our ancestors went off alone into the wilderness (or at least a short walk away from camp); how can you in your own life make space for yourself so that your spiritual unreadiness is respected, moved through, and made ready?