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Parashat Tazria-Metzora: God, Man, and State

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot – A Commentary for the Ages: Leviticus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

God, Man, and State*

The conjunction of the two sidrot we read today, Tazria and Metzora, is remarkable. The first speaks of birth, the second of a kind of death (a leper is considered partially dead; see Nedarim 64b). Tazria describes the joyous acceptance into the fold of a new Jew by means of brit mila, circumcision, while Metzora tells of the expulsion of the leper from the community.

Yet, these two portions are read on the same Shabbat with no interruption between them. The tension between these two opposites, this dialectic between birth and death, between pleasure and plague, between rejoicing and rejecting, speaks to us about the human condition as such and the existence of the Jew specifically. Even more, this tension contains fundamental teachings of Judaism that are relevant to the problems of the State of Israel whose eighteenth birthday we shall be celebrating this Monday.

After delineating the laws of childbirth, the Torah in the first sidra gives us the laws of circumcision. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tazria 7) relates a fascinating conversation concerning this Jewish law. We are told that Turnus Rufus, a particularly vicious Roman commander during the Hadrianic persecutions in Palestine, spoke to Rabbi Akiva, the revered leader of our people. He asked Rabbi Akiva: “Which is more beautiful: the work of God or the work of man?” Rabbi Akiva answered: “The work of man.” Turnus Rufus was visibly disturbed by the answer. He continued: “Why do you circumcise your children?” Rabbi Akiva said: “My first reply serves as an answer to this question as well.” Whereupon Rabbi Akiva brought before the Roman commander stalks of wheat and loaves of good white bread. He said to the Roman: “Behold, these are the works of God, and these are the works of man. Are not the works of man more beautiful and useful?” Said the Roman to Rabbi Akiva: “But if God wants people to be circumcised why are they not born circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva replied: “God gave the mitzvot to Israel letzaref bahen, to temper or purify His people thereby.”

Here is the triumphant Roman commander, activist, arrogant, proud, and power-drunk. In an attitude of contempt, he faces the aged Jewish leader of this conquered people, a man who proclaims that the greatest principle of life is the study of Torah. What can these otherworldly mystics know about the world, about reality, about life? So he taunts the old rabbi: How come you circumcise your children? Do you not believe that man, as God’s creation, is already born perfect?

But the Roman pagan is amazed by the response: No! All of Judaism – its philosophy, its Torah, its mitzvot – is based upon the premise that God withheld perfection from His creation, that He only began the task and left it to man, His tzellem, His image, to complete. In Genesis 2:3, we are taught that God rested from creating the world “which God created to do” – and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted that to mean that God created the world for man “to do.” Therefore, Rabbi Akiva shows Turnus Rufus the wheat stalks and the white breads to teach him that God has created wheat because He wants man to do something with it. It is God’s will that human beings make the created world more beautiful and more perfect. No wonder that in the Jewish view science and technology play such a positive role. No wonder that religious Jewry has contributed so mightily, throughout the ages and today as well, to the advancement of science and the control of nature.

Therefore, too, the mitzvot, and especially circumcision, were revealed to Israel to teach that people must act in order to perfect themselves and the world, and in the process, letzaref bahen, to purify themselves and fulfill all their sublime potentialities.

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva himself exemplified this great principle. He was, on the one hand, one of the saintliest spirits in all our history. The Talmud, in imaginative grasp of the truth, tells us that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and he saw the sacred soul of Rabbi Akiva, he protested to God that Akiva was more worthy to be the bearer of Torah than he, Moses, was. And yet, on the other hand, it was the same Rabbi Akiva who did not isolate himself in the academy, but became the sponsor of Bar Kokhba, the great Jewish general who led the revolution against Rome.

This, then, is what mila teaches us: “The work of flesh and blood is beautiful indeed.” The world is an uncompleted creation; man’s fate is to finish it. This is the principle of activism. The State of Israel was built by people who perceived this Jewish principle. They were the ones who refused to stand aside, outside of the stream of history, but who actively took upon themselves to rebuild Jewish statehood. Their activity was in full keeping with the Jewish tradition as taught by the law of mila. More than enough Jewish blood was spilled in the effort, and the sweat and tears invested shall never be forgotten.

Yet, this is only half the story. There is an opposite danger. If man is indeed a creator, then there is the peril that he will become intoxicated with power and self-delusions, that he will begin boasting and bragging and proclaiming bombastically, “My own power and my own strength have performed all this” (Deuteronomy 8:17). When he circumcises his child, he tends to forget that a healthy child is the gift of God. When he bakes his bread, he does not always realize that the wheat came from God’s earth. When he builds his state, he ignores the fact that without the divine promise to Abraham and divine guidance throughout the ages there would be no Jews to build the Jewish state. When he is self-completing, he tends to become, in his imagination, self-creating. He is self-finishing and thinks that he is therefore self-made; and God spare us from self-made men!

To help us avoid this dangerous delusion, we have the teachings of Metzora. Just as Tazria and mila warn us to avoid the passivism that issues from a misunderstanding of faith, so Metzora and the law of the banishing of the leper outside the camp teach us to avoid the fatal illusion that issues from faithlessness. Just as one sidra tells us to circumcise the flesh and assert our manhood, so the second tells us to circumcise the heart and serve our God.

The great medieval scholar Rabbi Elazar of Worms explains the law of Metzora and this banishment outside the camp by means of a comment on a famous verse in the Psalms (49:13), “Man abideth not in honor; he is like the beasts that perish.” Man, says Rabbi Elazar, is born naked and ignorant, without understanding and intelligence. But God puts him on his feet, grants him wisdom and insight, feeds him and clothes him and makes him great. But then man forgets and does not understand that all this glory came to him from his God. Therefore, he becomes like a beheima, a mere animal. An animal is not kept at home, but sent out to pasture; he is unfit to live in a truly human community. So a person who forgets God is a metzora, is morally sick, and must be sent outside the camp of his or her peers. The leper symbolizes the individual who acquired self-confidence at the cost of fidelity to God and therefore is reduced to the role of a beast.

Mankind, then, must be co-creator with God. Tazria teaches that we must imitate our Maker; Metzora reminds us not to impersonate our God, not to be imposters. One sidra stresses the virtue of human commission, the other – the virtue of human submission to God.

Indeed, in an insight brimming with tremendous significance, the eminent Italian-Jewish thinker Rabbi Moshe of Trani finds this second principle in the commandment of mila itself. Just as circumcision teaches that man must act, so its particular designation for the eighth day teaches that his actions must not lead to the mere amassing of power and self-importance. Rather, man must acknowledge and reach out to the Creator of all the world. The number seven, Rabbi Moshe teaches, is the symbol of nature. Seven is the number of days in the week, the unit of time which establishes the rhythm of our lives. The earth, itself agricultural, follows a seven year cycle in Judaism – that of the shemita. The number seven, therefore, stands for this world in its fullness. The number eight, however, is beyond seven – it teaches that you must transcend what seven symbolizes, you must go beyond nature and reach out for the supernatural, for God, He who creates nature. Were mila on the seventh day, then the duty of man would be to correct the imperfections of Nature, but forever to stay within it as nothing more than a clever animal. But mila was commanded for the eighth day, to teach that the purpose of all man’s activity, the purpose of his work on Nature, is to elevate himself beyond the perfection of body and mind, beyond the conquest of the world, beyond technology. When man controls his environment, he fulfills the number seven; when he controls his instincts, he reaches the number eight. His technology is symbolized by the number seven; his theology by eight. Mila on the eighth day teaches that man must not only complete himself but must grow beyond himself; he must yearn and aspire to something higher. It signifies not only mila but brit; not only a surgical cut, but the sign of the covenant, a contract with God sealed in blood. It means that if a human being will not strive to be more than human, he must become less than human, an animal: “He is like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49:13). Then, man becomes a metzora, and like an animal, must be sent out “hutz lamahaneh,” outside the camp of human beings.

Indeed, this is the crucial problem concerning the character of the State of Israel: Is it to be the symbol of seven, or the symbol of eight? Will it be just a natural state, or something higher, something nobler? If Israel will be only natural, a state like all others, a small sliver of real estate on the shores of the Mediterranean, considered nothing more than the creation of the Hagana and Sabra ingenuity, then it has no special claim on Jewish communities throughout the world – no more than its population warrants. It has no right to messianic pretenses. Such a conception places it hutz lamahaneh, outside the purview of authentic Jewish history, an aberration. It is then in defiance of the covenant; it is the way of tuma, impurity. Only by fulfilling the symbol of eight, of loyalty to the covenant of God, of Torah, does it go the way of tahara, of purity and rebirth, of joyous fulfillment of the historic dreams and prayers and prophecies of our history.

This, then, is the real problem on this eve of the eighteenth birthday of the State of Israel: Will it be mila or brit? Surgery or covenant? Tazria or Metzora? Tahara or tuma? Striving to be more than a natural human political entity, or falling to a mere natural group which, under the impress of secular nationalism, often becomes beastly (“he is like the beasts that perish”)?

Such decisions are never made all at once. They involve long processes measured in historic time, certainly more than eighteen years. Many facts will determine the answer, and not the least of them will be the spiritual leadership in the state under the resolute stewardship of our distinguished and revered guest, His Eminence, Chief Rabbi Unterman, may he live and be well. Their enormously difficult task is to be both responsive to their fellow Israelis and responsible to our Heavenly Father. Like the kohanim in our sidra, they must confront all Jews, the perfectly pure and perilously impure. Sometimes it is their unhappy and tragic task to say to a man: “tamei,” “You are impure – you must go out!” Yet their greater and nobler task is to teach this same tamei to return, to bring Jews back into the historic community of Israel, to train all Jews in the way of the Torah’s tahara. It is by no means a simple duty; it is, in fact, unenviably difficult. Our hopes and good wishes and our prayers for divine guidance and blessings go to Chief Rabbi Unterman and his distinguished colleagues in this historic mission.

We have spoken of brit mila in relation to the State of Israel. The eighteenth birthday also has another significance – “ shemone esrei lehuppa” (Avot 5:22), the eighteenth year is traditionally the year of marriage. Let us conclude then by extending our wishes to Israel in a manner appropriate to both events. Let us all wish the State of Israel divine blessings – leTorah lehuppa ulema’asim tovim. May it be a future of Torah in which Israel will accept the divine word and turn to its Father in Heaven. May it be the time of huppa, the marriage of hearts between Israel and Jews throughout the world. And then, having returned to God and to Jews throughout the world, may Israel become the shining beacon of ma’asim tovim, of good deeds and noble living, throughout the world and for all mankind – leTorah lehuppa ulema’asim tovim, amen.

* April 23, 1966