“Withdrawal Symptoms” Parashat Tazria – HaChodesh 5776

This week we will be taking a out a second Torah scroll from which will be reading Parashat HaChodesh [Shemot 12:1-20] in which Hashem appears to Moshe on the first day of the month of Nissan and gives him a near-term schedule in preparation for the exodus. Parashat HaChodesh is read together with Parashat Tazria nearly every leap year. Being that so, let’s ask ourselves a question: Is there any kind of underlying connection between Parashat HaChodesh and Parashat Tazria, or do they just happen to be read on same week seven out of every nineteen years[1]?

The immediate answer to this question would be that the two parshiot have absolutely nothing in common. Parashat Tazria begins with a discussion about the spiritual impurity that a woman sustains after she gives birth and then the discussion segues to the subject of tzara’at – a malaise of the spirit that manifests itself as a fungal infection. These two topics seem about as disconnected from the Egyptian exodus as can be.

But perhaps there is more than meets the eye. Parashat HaChodesh is mentioned in the first Rashi in the entire Torah in Bereishit [1:1]: “It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from ‘This month is to you,’ [Shemot 12:2] which is the first commandment that [all] the Israelites were commanded. For what reason did He commence with ‘In the beginning’? Because of [the verse] ‘The strength of His works He related to His people to give them the inheritance of the nations’ [Tehilim 111:6]. For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],’ they will reply, ‘The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them and when He wished He took it away from them and gave it to [Am Yisrael]’.” The Torah is not a book of history or a book of science[2]. It is a book of law. Indeed, the word “Torah” comes from the word “hora’a”, which means “to instruct”. The first law given in the Torah to the entire nation[3] is the concept of the New Moon – the “chodesh” – and so the Torah should have begun with this verse. The only reason that the Torah did not begin with this verse is to show that the Land of Israel was Divinely gifted to Am Yisrael, so all the other nations that claim ownership can pack their bags and go home.

Perhaps in some alternate universe.

But is this really so? Would the Torah really have been complete without the Book of Bereishit? Would Judaism be the same without the stories about Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov? Isn’t the Torah more than just raw halacha? Rav Haym Soloveichik makes precisely this point in “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy”. Rav Soloveichik laments the marginalization of what he calls “experiential Judaism”, the Judaism that is not learnt from a book, but from the “seat-of-the-pants” – from doing. Living a life of Torah is not accomplished merely by memorizing the laws of Shabbat or Kashrut[4]. It is also accomplished by emulating our forefathers, not only in the way they worshipped Hashem but in the way they did business, the way they dealt with strangers, and the way they raised their children. How, then, could Rashi suggest that the Torah could have skipped the Book of Bereishit and begun with Parashat HaChodesh?

This past Shabbat I saw a captivating response to this question, proposed by the Tzemach Tzedek in Ohr HaTorah. The Tzemach Tzedek – Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson – was the grandson of Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi and served as the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Tzemach Tzedek’s answer is rooted in Kabala, so we must tread carefully. The Torah is the revelation of the Word of Hashem in our corporeal world. By learning Torah we can get a glimpse of how Hashem operates. The first commandment – Parashat HaChodesh – was the first time that the Torah was revealed to the entire nation directly by Hashem, and so it is the perfect place to begin the Torah. Creation, teaches the Tzemach Tzedek, is the exact opposite of revelation. When Hashem created the world, He had to withdraw His infinite Presence in order to “make room” for the universe. This process is called “tzimtzum”. The exact nature of the tzimtzum became the subject of disagreement among later Kabalists. Some viewed it as a metaphorical act of self-limitation in which Hashem’s presence was merely concealed rather than removed. Others maintained that it was actually removed[5]. Whatever the case may be the reason that the Torah begins with withdrawal and not with revelation is to prove that the Land of Israel belongs to the Children of Israel.

But perhaps there’s more. Last week I spent two days at an Air Show in South America. Trade shows are usually mind-dulling experiences and so this particular one gave me some quality time with a good friend from work. He married late in life and his wife is about to have her first child. He is troubled. He is already having a certain amount of difficulty making room in his life for his wife and he now must make room for a child. Where is all the additional time and energy meant to come from? Is life a zero-sum game?

Here is what I should have answered: As we mentioned above, when a child is born his mother becomes ritually impure. During this time she is forbidden from touching her husband and from entering the Beit HaMikdash. After a waiting period she must bring a sacrifice and only then does she become pure again. It seems strange that when the greatest of miracles happens, when two human beings, along with the help of Hashem, create life, that the woman is inflicted with spiritual impurity of the highest degree.

One would have thought that some kind of spiritual elevation would have occurred. The Talmud in Tractate Niddah [31b] describes how the great sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was asked this question by his students. Rabbi Shimon answered that while a woman is suffering the pains of childbirth she swears that she will never again be close with her husband. Afterwards, when the pains have subsided and she has calmed down, she is penalized because of her false oath. I suggest that this woman is not only concerned with labour pains, hospital costs, or varicose veins. She is concerned with the pains of bearing and rearing a child – how she will be able to find room in her heart, in her home, and in her pocketbook for this new child. She is afraid of the tzimtzum inherent in creation. As in all acts of creation, she must withdraw in order create room for this new being. But after the initial shock has worn off and after her world reaches a new steady-state, she begins to understand that that she is not in a “zero-sum game”. She is in a “win-win situation”. Her worries were misplaced and she is penalized for her false oath.

I should have told my friend that the Torah begins with creation and not with revelation not only to prove ownership of the Land of Israel, but to serve as an archetype for the process of creation. Creation is always fraught with tzimtzum. One cannot create something new and still remain the same. There is always some kind of tangible impact on the creator. The reason the Torah begins not with the revelation Parashat Hachodesh, but with the story of the creation of the world, is to teach us that the benefit of withdrawal is always worth the cost.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] There are seven leap years in every nineteen-year cycle of the Jewish calendar.

[2] So many arguments over the years could have been avoided had this rule been heeded.

[3] The laws that were given before the Revelation at Sinai, such as circumcision and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve (gid ha’na’she), were given to individuals.

[4] Rav Soloveichik is no way besmirching the importance of keeping halacha. His point is that Judaism is more than an assortment of laws. I heartily recommend reading the article, see here: http://traditionarchive.org/news/originals/Volume%2028/No.%204/Repture%20And.pdf

[5] Esoteric stuff, indeed.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts