Torah: Body functions are daily reminder of lifes sacred nature


Leviticus 12:1–15:33

II Kings 7:3–20

This week, we reach the one Torah portion that intimidates many of us darshanim (those who give sermons) and b’nai mitzvah students beyond all others. The double parashah of Tazria- Metzora covers such issues as infections of the skin and garments and purity rituals in response to seminal emissions. A Dr. Seuss book this is not.

However, upon further inspection, Tazria-Metzora is essentially about the sacred nature of life and the proscribing of rituals in order to deepen one’s awareness of the miracle of being alive. In this way, the material is still very relevant to our lives.

As is often the case with the Book of Leviticus, it helps to consider the context of the parashah, especially in regard to the Book of Genesis. After all, Leviticus teaches us how to respect and ritualize the life that is created and given order in the Book of Genesis.

As you probably know, Genesis begins with the account of God’s creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh. God not only creates life; God also creates borders and structures to separate entities into their proper places. Consider that God begins creation by separating heaven from earth and then continues to separate light from darkness, day from night, land from ocean, and so on. God’s power is witnessed in the construction and maintenance of borders that keep things in their proper places. As God says to Job:

“Who closed the sea doors when it gushed forth out of the womb, when it clothed it in clouds, swaddled it in thick darkness, when I made breakers my limit for it and set up its bar and doors and said ‘You may come so far and no father; here your surging waves will stop?’ ” (Job 38:8-11)

The Book of Leviticus sees the human body as a microcosm of the universe God created. Therefore, the emission of either blood or seminal fluid from the body is not only a concern of disease. It symbolizes a crossing of an important border as erected by God. Our bodies are given life by the fluids that flow within us. If these fluids escape our bodies, not only do we die, but God’s order is violated. Therefore, such instances must be treated with caution. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah (1:3) alludes to this lesson in teaching:

“If a gourd has a hole even as small as the eye of a needle, all its air escapes; yet though a human is formed with many cavities and orifices, his breath does not escape through them. Who achieved this? You God alone do wonders” (Psalm 86:10).

The impulse within the Book of Leviticus to maintain borders to distinguish between the sacred nature of life and the profane nature of other objects leads to many other mitzvot, including the prohibition against mixing milk (life) with meat (death) or to remove all blood (life) from an animal’s flesh (death) before eating it.

Likewise, we are forbidden from wearing garments of mixed fabrics. Genesis teaches us that God’s order pervades all of creation and Leviticus instructs us on how to fulfill our role as custodians of this structured universe and not to mix what should not be mixed. There is no more important role than the maintenance of our own bodies and life-sustaining fluids.

While the rituals of this week’s parashah are dependent upon the Temple, our liturgy includes a talmudic ritual by which we continue to honor the sacred borders of our bodies:

“Abayei [the fourth-century Babylonian rabbi] said, when one comes out of a privy he should say: Blessed is God who has formed human beings in wisdom and created in them many orifices and cavities. It is clear and known before your throne of glory if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a person to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders” (Brachot 60b).

Jewish ritual challenges us to remain aware of the sacred nature of life through our healthy bodily functions. Although such actions are often thought of as profane, they are really reminders of the miracle of life and the blessing of having the health to go about our lives.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe
is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].