Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 5 April 2019
There is an intriguing coalition of Torah readings which come together this Shabbat: the weekly reading of parashat Tazria, dealing with the laws for a woman after giving birth and laws relating to the diagnosis and containing of skin diseases in Leviticus 12:1-13:59; and an additional Torah reading, heralding the month of Nisan and reminding us of the instructions for the Pesach sacrifice in Exodus 12:1-13.
Both signify two vital elements of Jewish life, without which I wonder if Judaism would continue to be passed on from generation to generation.
Tazria begins with the ancient laws of purification following the birth of a child and the timing of a male infant’s circumcision on the eighth day after his birth. Childbirth and circumcision both point to the significance of the Jewish life cycle. The birth of a child, and for a boy, brit milah, entry into the covenant through circumcision, is the first of a number of significant events in the life of a Jewish child and adult.
While the idea that a woman who gives birth bears impurity is obsolete in Liberal Judaism, our movement affirms and values the importance of certain meaningful rites of passage – at birth and when starting at Religion School as children are called up to stand under a tallit for a special blessing; Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Kabbalat Torah – all of which mark a coming of age; marriage for couples who wish to consecrate their relationship is open to same-sex and different-sex couples; and the religious process for divorce is no longer unilaterally held by the male partner, but is equal and performed in a humane and gentle way. At the end of life and afterwards, we mourn the death of loved ones with significant ceremonies and rituals that help individuals come to terms with grievous and sad losses and gently return the living to an embrace of life and hope.
Well before Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, the Mishnah (c. 3rd century CE) divided the life of an individual into fourteen different stages, each stage of childhood and adolescence linked to a curriculum of learning culminating in marriage. This learning of the traditions and texts of Judaism was considered the real preparation for life. Then from the age of twenty to seventy, said the Rabbis, one was ready to begin the real task of life, reaching full strength and pursuing righteousness and understanding, until in old age, they said, one reached the era of ‘labour and sorrow’.
The observance and celebration of significant life cycle events in the life of a Jew are deemed to be of vital importance in giving a child and individual a sense of belonging to a Jewish family and to k’lal Yisrael – the community of Israel.
The second and additional Torah portion for the week and which gives this Shabbat its name – Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (the Sabbath that includes the reading of a passage beginning with the words ‘Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lachem rosh chodashim’ – ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months…’), introduces us to another cycle in the life not only of the individual and their family but of the community of the Jewish people – the cycle of the festivals and fasts that we commemorate throughout the year.
Beginning with Pesach, the first of the three Pilgrim Festivals, Shavuot and Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Liberal Jews affirm the importance and relevance of celebrating moments that commemorate the mythical history of our past and the themes of freedom, revelation and joy. Liberal Jews deeply value a time for reflection, repentance and spiritual renewal with the great festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And just as much a part of that cycle of celebration and commemoration in our yearly observances are the festivals of Chanukkah and Purim, Yom ha-Atzma’ut, Tish’ah B’Av and Yom Ha-Shoah.
So, two cycles are entwined in the Torah portions for this week: the life cycle of a Jew, celebrated in the context of family and community and the cycle of festivals and fasts that occur in the Jewish calendar, marked in the context of Jewish history and community. Without actively commemorating and acknowledging these two essential elements of Jewish life, how can we pass on our Jewish heritage to the next generation? How can we teach children that when they celebrate Pesach, taste the bitter herbs of slavery or chew on their matzah, a symbol both of poverty and freedom, they are part of a chain of tradition, part of a people whose very mission it is to stand both within the world and apart from the world to change what is unjust and wrong into a world that is fair, free and just.
And without our special rites of passage that mark the individual life of a child or adult in their family, how would we know of our connection to our family history and the history of our people and the communities we have chosen to join?
Whether we are born into a Jewish family or choose to join the family of Israel by converting to Judaism or re-adopting the faith of our antecedents that somehow got lost along the way, we are all part of these cycles of Jewish life, connecting us deeply with our heritage and the cycles of our own spiritual lives.
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