This is a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. Though it is now almost a decade later, and we continue to lurch from Gaza-Israel crisis to crisis, as I just re-read it, it seems very applicable to this time.
In this week’s Torah portion, called Shelach Lecha, we find the Israelites at a critical crossroads in their early history as a free people. A little over a year has passed since they escaped slavery in Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of their destination – the Promised Land. God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.
After spending 40 days scouting out the land, the team returned to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran. They brought samples of the land’s produce, including a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large wooden pole and carried by two men.
Our Torah portion this week begins with the words eeshah kee taz-reeyah v’yaldah zachar…, which means, “In the case of a woman who has conceived seed and given birth to a male…” The passage then goes on to describe the process this new mom will go through in terms of ritual purification following the act of giving birth. After describing the procedure following the birth of a baby boy, it outlines the process after the birth of a girl. Regarding natural human experiences involving blood, bodily fluids, life or death, in the eyes of Leviticus people who have these experiences shifted from being ritually pure to impure, and then would follow specific rituals to re-purify.
Our text says that after the birth of the baby, the mom becomes tamay, ritually impure, for a set number of days, and then it describes the ritual purification process she will go through to return to a state of taharah, ritual purity. To reestablish her state of purity she goes to the central sanctuary and brings an offering. As is often the case with these kinds of passages in the Torah, there is an economic sliding scale put into the law to make sure that poverty doesn’t prevent a new mom from being able to participate.
I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.
D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph. Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim. The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.
You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.
When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt. Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather. Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons. In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.
Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons. Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried. Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela. After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery. They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him. The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.