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Metzora - Personal Statements

By Rabbi Aron Tendler

Sefer Vayikra presents a uniquely personal formulation of the ideal relationship between G-d and His nation. From the beginning of the Sefer (book), the Torah focused the Temple service on the individual. "A man who brings an offering to G-d." The Torah could have begun with the laws of communal offerings; instead, it first focused our attention on the role of the individual and his place within the Temple service.

Central to the book of Vayikra was the selection and induction of Aharon's family into the priesthood and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Next week's Parsha (Acharei Mos) will focus on the Yom Kippur service and again mention the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. With next week's Parsha and the role of the Kohain Gadol as the main functionary in the Yom Kippur service, the focus will once again be on the role of the individual in his successful or unsuccessful relationship with G-d. In contrast with Nadav and Avihu, Aharon succeeded as the Kohain Gadol where his two eldest sons failed.

In this week and last week's Parshios the Torah focuses on two other dimensions of the individual's relationship with G-d. In Tazria the focus was the purity and impurity associated with childbirth. In Metzora the focus is on leprosy and its impact on the infected individual's devotional and social freedom. Once a person is declared a "leper" he or she is restricted where they can go and with what and whom they can have contact.

Tazria, last week's Parsha, began by detailing the differences that the birth of a boy or a girl has on the mother. If it is a boy, the mother is Tameh (restricted) for one week and Tahor (unrestricted) for 33 days. If it is a girl, the mother is Tameh for 14 days and Tahor for 66 days.

Rav Hirsch explained that the double time for the birth of a girl is intended to accomplish the same thing as the Bris does for the boy. Upon the birth of a boy the father, as the primary role model for his son, is commanded to induct his son into the covenant of Avraham. In doing so, the father makes a statement of his own acceptance of responsibility to raise his son as a true servant of G-d. "Just as he entered into the Bris, so should he be inducted into the study of Torah, marriage, and the doing of good deeds." Just as the father "forced" a Bris upon his son so should the father force upon his son a home life and education that will nurture him into a true servant of G-d.

With the birth of a girl, the primary role model is her mother. In the same manner that the mother is Tameh for 7 days and Tahor for 33 days as a statement of her personal relationship with G-d (relationship being defined as imposed obligations) so must the mother accept an additional 7 days of impurity and 33 days of purity on behalf of her new-born daughter. In doing so the mother confirms her commitment to raise her daughter within a home and educational environment that will nurture her daughter to be a true servant of G-d.

I would like to present two other instances in Halacha (Jewish law) that focus on our personal relationship with G-d, Mechitzah (the physical barrier that separates men and women during prayer) and hair coverings - both Kippah (yarmulke) and Sheitel (wig). (This is not to suggest that they are the only two such instances. Just the opposite! Almost every Mitzvah can be presented from the personal perspective; however, these two are seen by most to have a greater focus and impact on women than men.)

First of all Mechitzah.

In past issues of the Rabbi's Notebook I have presented Rav Soloveitchik's reasoning for the separation between men and women during davening (prayers). Whereas most of the world views Mechitzah as a barrier between men and women so that neither (especially the men) will be distracted during the Tefilah, the Rav Zt'l explained Mechitzah as a singular statement of equality between men and women in their personal relationships with G-d. He explained that Tefilah is a moment when the individual acknowledges his or her complete dependency upon G-d. As such, the individual must be able to feel that dependency just as a child feels his or her dependency upon parents. When children grow up, marry and have children, their feelings of dependency recede and are replaced with feelings of responsibility for home, spouse and children. However, those newfound feelings of responsibility can easily mask or replace feelings of dependency upon G-d. Therefore, at the occasions of formalized prayer when we are supposed to express our total dependency upon G-d and only G-d, the Halacha demands that we separate from our spouses. In doing so we state that although married to another, although responsible for another, although sharing responsibility with another for others, we are ourselves only children in relation to G-d. Furthermore, it declares to ourselves that in relation to G-d we each have our own responsibilities that are removed from those of our spouses. It means that one spouse cannot depend upon the personal relationship that the other spouse has with G-d to satisfy his or her own obligation to have a personal relationship with G-d.

Secondly, Kippah and Sheitel.

Jewish men are supposed to wear a head covering. As in all things, there is a minimum measure that should be maintained. (As in most things, the manner in which the obligation is executed can also be used as a personal statement of affiliation and ideology. This is by far the least important aspect of the law.) Nevertheless, the reasoning behind the wearing of a Kippah is for the individual to acknowledge that there is a G-d above him to Whom he is responsible.

Just as there are fundamental differences in the psychological, emotional, and physical makeup of men and women, there are spiritual differences between men and women. These differences are recognized and defined by Halacha. The spiritual differences are not in the opportunity for having a personal relationship with G-d. The differences are only in the manner that we are each obligated to express that personal relationship. However, each man and woman is equally responsible for developing a personal relationship with G-d.

The Kippah for a man is a statement of his personal relationship with G-d. The Sheitel (or any other covering) for a married woman is a statement of her personal relationship with G-d. Just as the Kippah reminds the man that there is a G-d above him to Whom he is responsible, so too the Sheitel reminds the married woman that there is a G-d above her to Whom she is responsible.

I recognize that this reasoning for a married woman covering her hair is somewhat different than the usual "Tzniut" formulation. I am not suggesting that Tzniut (modesty) does not figure into the equation of the Sheitel. However, there are two concerns when it comes to married women covering their hair. One concern is the fundamental reason for doing so. That reason is, as I stated, a personal statement on the part of a married woman that there is a G-d above her to Whom she is responsible. The second concern is the execution of that obligation: how to cover, how much to cover, when to cover, and when not to cover. In that regard there are various opinions that much be taken into consideration. However, the minimum covering required by Halacha (which does not take into account all the dimensions of Tzniut etc.) underscores that covering hair for a married woman is the same personal statement as the Kippah is for a man.

The obvious question is, if covering hair for a woman makes the same statement as wearing a Kippah does for a man, why don't unmarried women cover their hair? The answer brings us back to the concept of this week's Parsha and the double time that a mother must sit for the birth of her daughter.

My brother Rav Mordecai Shlit'a explained that Chazal understood the dynamics and psychology of individuals, couples, and families and the impact it has on the individual's personal relationship with G-d. Often, when a woman marries she enters into the relationship as an independent thinker and Jew. Her accomplishments and dreams reflect individual initiative and commitment. Her personality is as independent of her husband as her husband's personality is independent of her. However, there is a natural and admirable tendency for women to begin to redefine their personalities by their designation as wife and mother. (This is further impacted by the social custom of changing names from their family of origin to their husband's family name.)

As life develops and more and more responsibilities are added or undertaken, the tendency is for women to shift the responsibility for their own spirituality to their husband. So long as their husband davens, gives Tzedaka, and learns Torah they're ok too. So long as their children are well fed, groomed, going to Yeshiva, and doing their homework, they're ok too. There is no doubt that much of the credit for the family's spirituality is the direct result of the wife and mother. There is no doubt that the wife and mother will share equally in the accomplishments and future rewards of her husband and children. However, none of that was intended to replace the personal relationship that each woman is obligated to have and maintain with G-d. Therefore, the Rabbi's in their infinite wisdom understood that the importance of a woman making a public but personal statement of her relationship with G-d is far greater after she marries than before she marries. Therefore, the law is that only married women have to cover their hair.

The mother who sits 7 days of Tumah and 33 days of Taharah for her newborn son and 14 days of Tumah and 66 days of Taharah for her newborn daughter is making a personal statement of her relationship with G-d. The woman who comes to Shul and davens behind the Mechitzah is making a statement of her personal relationship with G-d. The married woman who accepts to cover her hair is making a statement of her personal relationship with G-d.


Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.

 


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