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April 16, 2010 4:53 pm

Tazria: Don’t Kill the Love – Cultivating Sensitivity toward the Birds

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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Why computers should be considered masculine:

1. They have a lot of data but are still clueless.
2. They are supposed to help you solve your problems, but half the time they are the problem.
3. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that, if you had waited a little longer, you could have had a better model and for much cheaper.
Why computers should be considered feminine:
1. No one but their creator understands their internal logic.
2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else.
3. Even your smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval.
4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.

Searching for the Discrepancies

Jews have long known that the Hebrew Bible can be truly appreciated only when attention is paid not only to the explicit narrative and message, but also to the text’s apparent discrepancies, grammatical flaws and unusual syntax. In fact, one of the outstanding features of Jewish biblical literacy produced over the past two-and-a-half millennia is its incredibly rich interpretation of the Bible’s apparent errors, a study that almost totally escaped the eye of many Bible critics of the past two centuries.

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In this week’s essay, I wish to draw our attention to one such small anomaly in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, which, upon further reflection, exposes to us the Torah’s majestic attitude toward the cultivation of sensitivity and empathy.

Post-Birth Offerings

The beginning of this week’s portion, Tazria, discusses the offering every Jewish woman would bring during the Temple days following the birth of a child. This offering, representing post-birth healing and dedication, was brought forty days after the birth of a male, and eighty days after the birth of a female.

The type of this offering depended largely on the financial means of the family. Here is how the Torah describes it:

“She shall bring a sheep within its first year for an elevation offering, and a young dove or a turtledove…
“But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves… and she shall become purified.”

The Anomaly

It seems quite clear and straightforward. Yet the discerning student of the Bible will notice a glitch here. The Torah has already discussed a number of times the possibility of specific individuals bringing turtledoves or young doves as an offering to G-d. Later, too, the Bible will discuss this type of offering repeatedly. In each of these instances, the Torah first mentions the turtledove (tor, in Hebrew), and only afterward the young dove (ben yonah, in Hebrew). Here too, when discussing the offering brought by the woman possessing smaller means, the Torah states, “She shall take two turtledoves or two young doves,” first mentioning the option of offering turtledoves and only afterward the option of young doves. In all of the nine times this offering is discussed in the Bible, the turtledove precedes the young dove.

There is, surprisingly, one exception. In our portion, while discussing the offering presented by the woman of larger means, the Torah states (as recorded above), “She shall bring a sheep within its first year for an elevation offering, and a young dove or a turtledove.” Here, suddenly, the order is changed. First the young dove, and only afterward the mature turtledove. Why?

The Pairs

One of the greatest legal and spiritual personalities of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Jacob Ashkenazi (born 1270 in Germany; died in 1343 in Toledo, Spain), in his Torah commentary known as “Baal Haturim,” offers a simple but profoundly moving two-line answer.

Wherever the bird offering is mentioned throughout the Torah, says Rabbi Jacob, it is always in the context of a pair of turtledoves or a pair of young doves. The above quote is one example: “But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves.” Birds are offered in pairs of two.

The only exception is the woman possessing greater means, who, following childbirth, offers one sheep and one bird. Here the Torah states, “She shall bring a sheep… and a young dove or a turtledove.” This is why the Torah, in this instance, changes the order of the birds, first mentioning the young dove, than the older turtledove. The Torah is attempting to teach us that in a case when a single bird is offered, preference should be given to the young dove over the older mature dove. The older turtledove should only be brought as a last resort, if a young dove could not be found. This requirement would not apply when a pair of birds is being offered together.

Loyalty of a Dove

The logic behind this is moving.

Most animals do not enjoy monogamous relationships. The majority of animals belong to the ‘sowing wild oats’ school of thought, in which they are constantly switching mates, even in a single season. The male chimpanzee, for example, goes so far as to invite different females to mate by just spreading his legs. Creatures such as fish (and particularly sea urchins) take it even a step further: They release their eggs and seed into the sea and hope that some of each will meet up and fertilize.

There are a few exceptions to the non-monogamous trend among animals; one of them is the dove. Many (though not all) birds of the dove family are loyal to their mates, sometimes over many seasons and even years. In fact, the Talmud states that if the Torah had not been given, we would have learned how to be loyal to our spouses from the behavior of doves.

The passionate words expressed by the groom to his bride in the Song of Songs, “Behold, you are lovely my beloved; behold you are beautiful, your eyes are doves,” is understood in the Midrash as G-d’s profound compliment to the Jewish people. “Just as dove, from the moment it recognizes its partner, never exchanges it for anybody else, so the Jewish people, from the moment they recognized G-d, never substituted Him with any other deity.”

The Lesson

There are even certain doves who mourn the death of their mate, not easily choosing a new partner. That is why in the case of a woman offering only one dove, the Torah is urging us to avoid taking a single mature dove as an offering, since we might be depriving its partner from his or her mate which has ascended to G-d. The preference must be the young dove which has not yet began to mate. In all other instances, though, where the instruction is to offer two doves, no partner will lose its mate, hence the Torah does not give preference to the young doves over the mature doves.

This conveys a profound lesson on the sensitivity the Torah demands of us toward feelings of animals, even toward a bird left over after its mate has been offered to G-d. Certainly, it tells us how we must honor the dignity and feelings of a fellow human being. How much more must we deeply honor and cherish the emotions and experiences of our partners in life.

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