Mayanot Parshat Tazria: Living With Jewish Joy
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Tazria(Leviticus 12-13)

Living With Jewish Joy

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period, as during the days of her separation infirmity (the ArtScroll translation for the concept of the ritual impurity of Nidah that is related to the female menstrual cycle) shall she be contaminated. On the eighth day, the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised. (Vayikra 12:2-3)

We have addressed the issues of the Nidah impurity and circumcision in previous essays, but there is much that must still be explained before the modern person can relate to these Torah concepts. Consequently this essay will be dedicated to broadening our understanding of these issues.

 

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THE MYSTERY OF THE PREOCCUPATION WITH ROMANCE

There are aspects of life that seem perfectly simple until you pause to think about them; as soon as they are subjected to mental scrutiny they lose their simplicity and become utterly mysterious. Sex and romance, and the role they play in our culture belong to this category of phenomena.

The most cursory glance at our culture serves to reveal that well over 80% of the songs we listen to, the books that we read, the movies we love to watch, indeed, all cultural phenomena that we lump collectively under the heading of 'entertainment,' revolve around a single subject. As everyone knows, this subject is romantic love and sex. We cannot even sell soft drinks or chocolate in our culture without forming an association between these products and the images of scantily clad males and females portrayed in carefree 'fun' situations, while a background voice laden with sexual undertones praises the product.

Even if we move away from the area of entertainment, we are struck by the observation that flirtation pervades the social milieu and is a major component of the modern workplace. First of all, flirtation is a part of the accepted environment of almost any large office. When we move out of the office, male-female teams are often selected to execute tasks that contain a built-in boredom factor, such as routine police work or guard duty. The assumption is that the spark of sexual tension generated by the male-female interaction will keep workers alert through the boring phases of these jobs so that when the need for action does suddenly arise, they will be sufficiently awake to rise to the challenge.

 

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IS ROMANCE REALLY SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART OF REAL LIFE?

And yet, this dominant atmosphere of sexual tension is quite mysterious. Sex and romance do not take up a very high percentage of the average person's life. Human beings spend much more time on almost every other activity; shopping, eating, sleeping, working etc. But if sex and romance are not such dominant parts of our practical world, why do they dominate our fantasy life so heavily?

The answer is quite clear and simple. Human beings are stimulated by the feeling of being alive. Experiencing the surge of the life force is never boring. The sensation of such a surge in the life force is invariably generated by a contact with its source. The sexual act is the source of physical life. This fact raises the slightest association with it to the level of the interesting and gratifying. It is not that our society is particularly licentious. People are not running around engaging in illicit sex. As we have already stated, the actual practice of physical sex isn't a major part of life.

 

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BOREDOM AS AN EXISTENTIAL PROBLEM

It is the psychological need for excitement and stimulation that account for the central role of sex in our culture. The major existential problem of the modern world is boredom. All human tasks are repetitive. After the initial novelty of an activity wears off, it rapidly becomes boring. It is extremely difficult to be productive at anything when one is bored. It is essential to provide the external stimulation that will keep life interesting if our way of life is to survive.

It is obvious that it is essential for life to have a purpose that we can all relate to and understand. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and get ourselves to work on time even if most of us are working at tasks that provide us with little stimulation. Until very recently in world history, most human beings were engaged in the struggle for physical survival. It was difficult to provide oneself and one's family with food, clothing and shelter.

When physical survival is in question, the issue of boredom and purpose doesn't arise. The life force is so powerful within us that we will automatically do the things we need to do in order to survive without worrying about the purpose of our activities. The early part of human history, when life was one long struggle for physical survival, gave rise to the common statement that life is short. The struggle for survival was never boring.

 

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BOREDOM IN THE POST INDUSTRIAL AGE

But the technological advances of the post-industrial age have relieved Western man of the angst of physical survival. Few people in post-industrial Western societies have to worry about starvation or even homelessness. While this is a wonderful development in itself, it robs Western man of the simple rationale for living. He doesn't need to struggle for the bare necessities of existence. So what keeps him motivated and working?

This question is the key to understanding the role of sex in our culture. Because our lives lack purpose, we are compelled into a frenetic search for stimulation to keep ourselves functioning in a basically futile existence. Hence our fascination with stimuli that can produce the inner sensation of a surge in the life force. As long as this surge is present, we are relieved of the necessity of searching for a purpose for living. In the absence of the surge we are beset by feelings of boredom and aimlessness.

 

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FUTILITY IS "TAMEI"

This entire approach to life is defined by the Torah as Tamei. The word Tamei, as we have explained before, means sealed off and impermeable to the Divine light in Hebrew. The material world is a closed system, sealed off from eternal light. The best way to convey the meaning of the spiritual confinement imposed by the world of physicality is through the concept of accomplishment and purpose. Physical life accomplishes nothing enduring. As Ecclesiastes noted long ago, generations come and go, and there is nothing new under the sun. Everyone who is alive knows that he will shortly die and that this pattern will be followed by his offspring till the end of time.

A purposeless life that accomplishes nothing is difficult to live through because it is very long and boring. The accomplishment of important tasks is almost invariably accompanied by the feeling of being pressured by the shortage of time available. The lives of people who are engaged in crucial tasks that involve a lot of responsibility flows along at a heady pace. They are always short of time. But when people have nothing important to do, the days can seem endless.

 

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THE RESULT OF THE VOLUNTARY ENCLOSURE IN PHYSICALITY

As a secular society, we have fallen into the trap of enclosing ourselves in the physical universe located under the sun where Ecclesiastes said 'there is nothing new.' The reason behind this voluntary enclosure is quite obvious; our intense focus on physicality has paid heavy dividends. The technological progress offered by the secular-scientific approach to life has released us from the drudgery of the historic struggle for bare survival.

But there is a downside to our victory over physical limitations. We have exchanged the need to struggle physically with the burden of having to struggle spiritually. We must now struggle with boredom and aimlessness. The progress provided by technological advance offers no new horizons beyond physical well being. So we become bored with life and are forced to pursue stimulation. We invent endless ways of stimulating ourselves with the aid of self-induced surges of the life force.

This need for endless stimulation is behind our society's obsession with sex and romance in all its cultural forms. Because we are dealing with boredom, which is primarily a spiritual problem, we pursue the surges of the life force in symbolic forms and images largely in our fantasies. Fantasy is the secular counterpart to spirituality.

In order to find true purpose in life, man must break through the walls of physicality and penetrate to the realm of the eternal.

 

* * *

 

TORAH OBSERVANCE IS ALSO A STRUGGLE-FREE LIFESTYLE

The Torah was also designed to fit into a world where one does not need to engage in endless struggle for mere physical survival. It is full of passages that point out that physical struggle is a consequence of lack of Torah observance. The clearest exposition of the Torah philosophy regarding physical well being is stated by Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch.9.

God designed the world as a place where man could be free to pursue the life of the mind and spirit. Until man sinned, he lived in Paradise, a place where the need for physical effort was reduced to zero. Even after man was driven out of Paradise, God did not condemn him to waste his precious moments on the pursuit of food, clothing and shelter. The need to expend thought and effort on the acquisition of physical necessities is related to man's sense of priorities. To the extent that he dedicates his life to the pursuit of physical well being, he is forced to pay for the acquisition of this well being with the expenditure of his life force.

But to the extent that he pursues a life of spirituality, man's physical needs are automatically provided for. This means that Torah-observant lifestyle is subject to the identical problems of potential boredom and aimlessness that are the byproducts of technological progress. A Torah-observant society is also emancipated from the need to struggle for physical survival. If so it must be designed to cope with the problem of boredom by definition in order to succeed.

 

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EMANCIPATION FROM PHYSICAL STRUGGLE LEADS TO THE PURSUIT OF JOY

We have finally reached the point where we can appreciate the fundamental reasons for the ritual impurity associated with the Nidah laws and the need for circumcision. As we have demonstrated from our examination of the role of sex and romance in secular culture, human life can be invested with purpose either through the struggle for survival or by the pursuit of joy. Human beings have the same basic natures whether they are secular or Torah-observant. Just as secular man is driven to stimulating himself by experiencing the pulse of his life force in order to invest his life with meaning once you emancipate him from the need to struggle for survival, so is the Torah Jew.

But the pulse of the life can be experienced in two editions. The first edition belongs to the world of physicality, but the Torah edition involves the experiencing of the pulse of the spiritual life force. The act of procreation not only produces bodies, it brings fresh human souls down to the world as well. The ultimate power of the human life force is expressed in the act of procreation through the ability to produce a fresh human soul, a brand new image of God.

 

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PURSUIT OF SPIRITUAL JOY

If the purpose of the life of emancipated physical man is to stimulate himself to experience joy through constantly feeling the pulse of the physical life force, the purpose of emancipated spiritual man must be located in his ability to constantly experience the pulse of the human spirit. The laws of Nidah and circumcision were given to us so that we can reach out for this spiritual joy.

We have often explained in these essays that spirituality and physicality are different layers of a single reality. Every phenomenon of physical reality is the surface layer of a deeper spiritual reality. The ultimate expression of this concept is the body of man. According to Judaism man is primarily a spirit or Neshama. The body is merely the clothing the soul must wear in order to be able to walk around in the physical world.

 

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613 MITZVOT

Thus the body has 248 limbs and 365 tendons because it clothes the Neshama which also has the corresponding number of parts. Rabbi Chaim Vital, the student of the Ari, in his work the Gates of Holiness explains that the Torah also has 248 positive commandments and 365 negative prohibitions for a total of 613. Each mitzvah in the Torah is connected to one of man's limbs and each prohibition attaches to one of his tendons. When a Jew performs a mitzvah, the Neshama is thereby attached to the corresponding limb or tendon in the human body, the body becomes an expression of the Neshama, and the presence of the Shechina rests on man. When a Jew transgresses against a commandment, the corresponding limb of the body loses its attachment to the holiness of the Neshama and becomes spiritually dark.

The limbs of reproduction also fit this pattern. The surge of the life force involved in the sexual act is merely a cover for the spiritual life force of the Neshama as it expands in the world to produce a new Tzelem Elokim, image of God.

 

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THE NIDAH LAW

Let us examine the mitzvot of Nidah and circumcision from the perspective of this two-tiered reality. The menstrual cycle is related to the production of new life. Each and every month the female body prepares new eggs for fertilization. If fertilization does not take place within a reasonable time, the body flushes out these eggs through a flow of blood as they 'spoil' in the womb and become unsuitable for the production of new life.

There is no difference in the physical sensations associated with the physical act of procreation whether the eggs are fresh or not. The difference between the two states is spiritual. When the eggs are 'fresh' and suitable for the implantation of new life, the physical womb serves as the surface layer of the Neshama within. The Neshama is able to expand in the world by implanting a fresh Divine soul in the new human body that can be conceived at this time. But when the menstrual blood flushes out the eggs, conception is impossible. The sexual act loses its spiritual potential and becomes the expression of the physical life force only. At this time of month, the experience of the surge of the life force can only appear in its physical edition. Like the rest of reality that is under the sun and enclosed in a purely physical container, it is purposeless. It can deliver only physical joy.

 

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BRIT MILAH

The same applies to circumcision. The male sperm is potent at all times of the month. The separation between pure physicality and the layered reality of physical exterior and spiritual interior expresses itself differently in the male than in the female. The male must have a Brit, circumcision. The Gaon of Vilna explains that the word Brit in Hebrew adds up to 612, because the mitzvah of circumcision weighs as much as the rest of the commandments combined. The Mishna (Nedarim,3,11) interprets the verse: "If my covenant with the night and day would not be; had I not set up the laws of heaven and earth" (Jeremiah 33,25) that God would not have created the heavens and the earth had he not given us His covenant, Brit in Hebrew, the commandment of circumcision.

The union between the physical and spiritual as expressed in the male is covenantal. It requires dedication and has an outward physical expression that conforms to the idea of self-dedication. The symbolic shortening of the source of the life force represents the idea of cutting away its purely physical expression. Circumcision emphasizes that the act of procreation must always be dedicated to the potential of spiritual expansion.

These portions of the Book of Vayikra that we are reading through are all dedicated to the idea of holiness. The Torah keeps emphasizing the correlation between the ideas of refraining from making oneself Tamei through illicit sexual acts, forbidden foods, forbidden forms of speech and the need to attain holiness. One could easily form the opinion that the entire concept of being holy is negative. It is all based on 'shalt nots.'

But this is a shallow view. In order to experience the jolt of spirituality, one must lower the volume of the surge of the physical life force. As long as the force of physicality surges through the blood man is enclosed in the futile world of physicality where nothing is new and everything dies. The Torah wants to open our hearts to a higher sort of joy, the surge of everlasting life.

Published: April 7, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) yael frank, April 23, 2009 2:49 PM

translation

I would so like all of Rav Weiss' Mayanot articles translated into Hebrew. Every week I read it to my husband but I would also like my children to hear, and my friends to understand. Every one of the articles are super inspiring and strenghthen our faith weekly.

(1) Boruch Leff, April 8, 2002 12:00 AM

An Amazing Essay!

This is such an insightful, relevant, and profound piece. What a work of art.

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