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Parashat Tazria

March 27, 2014
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, begins with laws pertaining to the ritual cleanness or uncleanness of a woman who just gave birth and then proceeds to deal at length with the same ritual issues regarding someone with tzara’at (often mistranslated as leprosy). That this parashah follows on the heels of Shemini, which largely deals with the cleanness or uncleanness (more commonly referred to as laws of kashrut) of various species of animals calls forth the attention of the Midrash.
In a well-known statement attributed to R. Simlai found in the Midrash Rabbah (quoted by Rashi to Lev. 12:2), he remarks on the order of the above two Torah portions. Instead of dealing first with laws pertaining to the ritual status of man/woman and then that of the animal kingdom, the Torah inverts the order and seems to give priority to the latter over the former.  R. Simlai resolves this “illogical” sequence by referencing ma’aseh bereishit (Creation) – “Just as the creation of man took place after all the creatures, so too the laws pertaining to man (as found in Tazria) were elaborated upon after the laws pertaining to the creatures (as found in Shemini).”
One might question the equation that R. Simlai made, for even the laws associated with the animals pertain to man, for animals are generally not restricted from consuming non-kosher food (perhaps with the exception of such animals like those belonging to R. Pinchas ben Yair – see Hullin 7b). Beyond the issue of the strict logic of R. Simlai’s connection between the order of the laws and the order of Creation, one can and should try to understand what lesson or lessons he is trying to impart. What comes to mind immediately is the famous statement found in Sanhedrin 38a that man was created before the Sabbath, (i.e. at the very end of the Creation process) in order to remind him if he gets haughty that the lowly mosquito was created before him. Thus, the order of the laws found in Sefer Vayikra (Book of Leviticus) serve as a similar reminder. Modesty and humility are central to the values of Judaism, and these virtues can be culled even from the order of the mitzvoth.
Perhaps a second and deeper lesson that R. Simlai’s explanation conveys is that the laws of the Torah are very much in sync with the creation of the world. The oft quoted statement from the Zohar that G-d looked into the Torah and from it created the world suggests that the laws of the Torah are meant to promote the best kind of life that one can live in the world brought into being by the Creator. That the Torah is the blueprint for the world, while largely a mystical concept (see Ramban in his Introduction to Genesis), is echoed in R. Simlai’s statement. By making a connection between the order of the laws in the Torah and the story of Creation, R. Simlai is promoting the idea that the mitzvoth should be seen as a continuation of Creation. Just as G-d created the world, He created the laws that allow us to live the best possible lives in that world.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.