Thursday, March 31, 2011

Born Again

If you were offered the opportunity to live forever would you take it? If given the chance to never die, to live on in perpetual good health and vitality would you say "yes"? Of course the reality is we will never be given that chance. And yet how we would respond to such a proposal says much about us, about who we are.

The Parsha of this week, Tazreea, opens with the laws of ritual purity and impurity as they apply to the woman who gives birth. She, while obviously blessed with a baby is nonetheless rendered impure in the act of childbirth and must both wait a period of days and bring a sacrifice before she is permitted to enter the Temple.

Question we may well ask is what is the nature of this 'tumah', ritual impurity? Typically 'tumah' is associated with death. The corpse is the ultimate 'tumah'. Dead animals are 'tamay'. Even the menstruating woman is 'tamay',while to a lesser degree, because her period represents the death of the opportunity for child with the passing of the ovum. But why the woman who gives birth? Why is she 'tamay'? She has born life, new life. She should represent the ultimate in 'tahara', ritual purity.

In 'tumat hayoledet', the impurity of the woman in childbirth, the Torah is teaching us something most vital. Life is not born in a vacuum. Life is always preceded by death. For something to be born, that which was prior needs to come to an end. True, the birthing mother has the great gift of a new baby. Life has come into the world. But that could not happen without the death inside herself of the being that was growing within. For nine months she was alive in a different way. One was two, two hearts, two minds. Now even as her baby has a life of its own, she, the mother, has a loss. She is now but one again, as she was prior to pregnancy.
The 'tumah' is within her, for the death of the second self that lived within.

Over and over we can see this truth revealed in the reality of our finite world. The umbilical cord is the source of life for the fetus. To have the cord severed when the fetus is within the mother means death for the unborn. Yet once the child is born we need to cut the cord, an act that causes separation and a momentary death. Yet it is necessary for the new baby to have life. Even a seed that becomes the starting point for a tree, needs to corrupt and decay in the soil to release it potential to root and bring forth new life.

Death and life, while opposites, are continuous with each other. One cannot have the life without their being a death.This is the message we read this week in the Torah in anticipation of Pesach in the portion we call "Parshat Hachodesh". The Torah reading challenges Israel, the new nation to its first mitzvah, one that is quite surprising. The first mitzvah given to our People is "hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim", "this month is to be for you the first of the cycle of months". The sages understood the mitzvah as that which calls on us to sanctify the months, the core time frame for our calendar, on the basis of the monthly renewal of the moon. When the new moon is born, after it has totally disappeared the night prior from the sky, sanctify the time and declare the month holy.

What's the message in this and why is this mitzvah so vital as a precursor to the redemption?

The Sfat Emet explained the concept here in a way consistent with what we have been sharing. Sanctifying the new moon is meant to teach us that our holiness as a people or for that matter as persons is not about simply adding on to what we already are. Holiness is about renewal, about being reborn, what in hassidut is referred to as 'hischadshut'. The moon has to entirely disappear, to die , as it were, and then be reborn, in order for kedusha to be possible. Like the moon we as a People and each Jew individually is challenged to die many times, so that we, s/he can be reborn and claim the kedusha meant for us. All real growth requires both a death and a rebirth. We cannot simply remain as we were and expect to add. To become we need radical change.

Perhaps you in your life, I know for certain me in mine,I had to go though the renewal of the moon to reach the place meant for me.I had to die and be reborn. There was no other way. Only by ending one life could another begin. To hold on to the remnants of a outlived past only delays the inevitable and necessary. In hassidut the teaching is that only through a 'hitbatlut', a self nullification, can we come to a 'hitchadshut', a true renewal.

And so to return from whence we began, if we were offered life unending would we choose to take the 'gift'? If life is about growth and becoming then I think not. If we lived forever we would not change, we would not die. A life without death means no 'hitchadshut', no renewal, no real growth. That would be too high a price to pay, even for a life unending.

Our tradition challenges us to do more than observe mitzvot and learn Torah. It asks more of us than to do kindness and be a good person. G-d asks us to remake ourselves in new and improved forms, to die and be reborn over and over in our lives. Sometime the death and rebirth is small, and sometimes we need a whole make-over. The key is to find the courage to die to ourselves so that we can know the gift waiting for us on the other side.

Shabbat Shalom

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