Is a big life change on the horizon Heres why you need a ritual


Shabbat HaChodesh

Leviticus 12:1-13:15

Exodus 12:1-20

Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

At every wedding, every time I stand under the chuppah with a couple, something special happens. God’s presence is felt under the chuppah as we invite a human relationship to contain something of the holy.

The chuppah, the wedding canopy, symbolizes the home the couple will build together. Our rabbis teach: Man is incomplete without woman, woman incomplete without man, and both are lacking without God’s holy presence. When a couple enters the chuppah, a transition takes place. In fear and trembling, and amid joy, God’s presence comes into our midst. The ritual itself invites God in.

Tazria is such a balance point for Leviticus and for our lives. It tells of these moments of transition and invites us to notice and become aware of their intrinsic holiness.

Tazria starts with the mystery of a birthing mother. Marriage is one such transition, birth another. I was present at the birth of each of my children. The Psalmist use the example of a woman in labor as the worst instance of pain. My children were all born late in the night — a cry in the dark as my wife was in the grip of powerful forces. And then there is new life. Praised is God who does good and is good!

What do we do at such a moment? What happens the next morning lest we walk into the sun, blinded by the new day and the changes that have taken place in our lives?

Tazria describes a ritual because that moment, that birthing into sunlight, has to be known, blessed and purified. My wife is now different, for life has come into the world through her. God breathed life into Adam, but ever after the breath of life is delivered through Eve. A tumah, a feeling of life’s transition, comes into the world, and Tazria invites us into a mikvah, or ritual bath, to wash ourselves and restore a sense of a world renewed.

No less than the moment of birth is the moment of death. I have on a few occasions been present at death. This moment also is one of mystery and transition. Our society generally avoids such moments, consigning them solely to medical professionals. This serves only to exaggerate our fear of death. Psalm 91 is associated with death, in part because it is a psalm of journeys, and we invoke God’s presence for our final journey:

“The one who dwells in the secret place of the most High, who abides under the shadow of the Almighty, Will say to the Lord, My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust … God shall give angels charge over you, to protect you in your journey.”

It is taught that on the day of Moses’ death, God brought him to the mountain and there kissed him as a man kisses a woman, and drew out from Moses the breath of life placed within him. Watching someone breathe their last is to watch something change. Something more than the purely biological takes place as the animating force departs, returning to God.

Being present at the moment of death creates a tumah from a different angle than a birth, but it too is a moment of transition that affects us in our deepest places. No less than a birth, presence at a death also requires a noticing, a washing. Reminded of life’s fragility, we need God to walk with us as we return back to the light of day.

Readings like Tazria, with their talk of purity and impurity, of blood and fluid, are ignored at our peril. Amid the ancient practices that on their face seem antiquated lie a deep wisdom. Weddings, births, deaths — all our moments of transition radically alter the world in which we live. Sometimes in joy and other times in sorrow, they are seismic shifts that require the healing quality of ritual. It is the power of Jewish ritual that enables us to emerge into the new day, ready to experience an altered life.

Rabbi David Booth
is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].