The Day After

Some portions lend themselves easily to a sermon-others not so much. What does the scale disease of tzaraat have to do with a couple getting married? Is there any possible connection? I would argue yes through looking at how tzaraat was treated and juxtaposing it with a couple after their wedding.

The beginning of the portion details the procedure for someone who has tzaraat. Such an individual is sprinkled with a sacrificial mixture seven times, is isolated from his/her community for seven days and shaves off all of his/her hair on the seventh day. At the end of the seventh day s/he enters a natural body of water and is purified. On the eighth day s/he offers an atonement sacrifice which again involves a sevenfold sprinkling on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand and the big toe of the right foot of one who had contracted tzaraat.

The key number in this procedure is seven. The sprinkling occurs seven times, and the afflicted individual is quarantined for seven days. Seven is a key number in Judaism, representing a complete cycle. The seven days of creation are why we have seven days of the week with the seventh day, Shabbat, being the day of rest, where we feel complete from all we have created during the week. It is also why we have a seven year cycle for the land, in which the seventh year is the year of rest, where we take a step back from our produce. Similarly, we have a seven day period after one has lost a loved one to give that individual time to grieve and heal before reentering into society. The same is true in our portion, as one who is found with an affliction needs time to recover from it, to reenter society as a whole human being. Why isolate someone? The common answer is that said individual engaged in motzi shem ra, evil speech, and thus needed to have time to think about what s/he did and work towards reforming his/her behavior. Tzaraat is thus an affliction that befalls someone because of a mistake that s/he made-the primary example being Miriam receiving it after speaking against Moses’ wife.

At a wedding, we also have the power of the number seven. We first experience it when the bride circles the groom seven times. This comes from a verse in Jeremiah “a woman shall encircle a man.”[1]  The reason for seven times is to symbolize divine protection; that G-d is looking after the couple and watching over their marital union. The seven circles represent complete connection and union between the bride and the groom.

We also have the Sheva Berachot, or seven blessings said under the wedding canopy, or Huppah. These blessings also have to do with creation. The first blessing, over a cup of wine, is for rejoicing for the marital union, as all celebratory moments in Judaism occur over a cup of wine. The second blessing testifies that G-d created everything for His glory. The third and fourth blessings both end יוצר האדם, the creator of humankind, as we praise G-d for creating us. However, the third blessing focuses on the creation of mankind as part and parcel of the creation of the world, whereas the fourth emphasizes our creation in G-d’s image and our perpetuation of our people. The fifth blessing is about the land of Israel rejoicing. When the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our people were exiled, there was fear that we would never return to the land of Israel. Jeremiah countered this fear, proclaiming עוד ישמע בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול כלה, “There will once again be heard in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem voices of joy and gladness, voices of bridegroom and bride!”[2] With these sounds of gladness, the land will rejoice. The sixth blessing is one for the happy couple, proclaiming that they are רעים האהובים, beloved companions, and comparing marriage to the paradise of the Garden of Eden. The final blessing once again returns to G-d’s creations but focuses on the bride and groom and their rejoicing together at their wedding. The seven blessings thus go from the macro approach of the creation of the entire world to the micro approach of the joy of this bride and this groom at their marriage.[3] In traditional communities there are seven days of celebration[4] following a marriage with festive meals, each of which contains the recitation of these blessings.
The use of seven to represent completion is beautiful, but I think what is even more beautiful is the notion of the eighth day. Going back to our portion, the person afflicted with tzaraat immersed in the mikveh on the seventh day but could only achieve atonement and rejoin the community on the eighth day. While seven represents completion, eight represents becoming part of our people. That is why the bris for a baby boy, at which he is given a Hebrew name and becomes part of the Jewish people, occurs on the eighth day. Similarly the Tabernacle and the Temple, the central shrines of our people, were both dedicated on the eighth day. In King Solomon’s time, our ancestors celebrated Sukkot for seven days at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem but the building was solemnized as the central worship site of our people on the eighth day.

The same lesson is true for marriage. After seven days of celebrating, either through the festive meals with the Sheva Berachot or by going on a honeymoon, the true work of becoming a household begins on the eighth day. The question for you, Matthew and Mandy, is what will you do to establish your household as Jewish? Will you celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, purchase and display Jewish artwork and ritual items, attend Jewish Young Professionals programs, have a Passover Seder, join a synagogue? After taking much deserved time to celebrate your marriage, the hard work of going from being individuals to becoming a couple, with values, traditions, goals and aspirations, begins one day at a time. I know that through open communication, through truly striving to understand one another, you will make every day count and will begin to embark on a wonderful life together. Mazal Tov on your upcoming marriage!

[1] Jeremiah 31:21. Interestingly, the original context is Jeremiah rebuking the daughters of Israel for being unfaithful and changing the natural order of things-a woman courting a man.

[2] Jeremiah 33:10-11

[3] My teacher, Rabbi Miles Cohen, taught me that the proper חתימה (ending) for the blessing is משמח החתן והכלה, to demonstrate that it is specifically this groom and this bride, rather than the traditional text, which reads משמח חתן והכלה. The traditional text also indicates that it could be any “groom” with this bride, which is definitely not what we want the message to be!

[4] Also called sheva berachot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s