PARSHAT TZAV

A SAD DAY

“Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.”  (Leviticus 6:2)

            Today was a sad day for my family.  My daughter Aliza and son-in-law Darren lost the baby she was carrying at 7 ½ months of pregnancy.  We are up in Charlotte, NC where we buried the baby, who never had a chance at life.  Big brother Judah does not entirely understand what is happening.  May the memory of Asher Louis Simons be a blessing.

            One of the difficulties of my tradition is that Judaism gives very little guidance for the burial of a stillborn baby.  Even a baby who lives less than 30 days is not mourned with the traditional Jewish mourning practices.  There is no shiva and no kaddish until the baby lives long enough to prove viability.  Nonetheless, we need to mourn.  We gave our grandson a Hebrew name, Asher Simcha, and conducted a traditional funeral, including kaddish.  I am aware that in doing so, we broke with tradition.  But sometimes the tradition does not give adequate guidance.

            The name of this week’s portion is Tzav, a word that means “Command.”  It begins with a commandment from God to the High Priest regarding the burnt offering.  But it has a broader meaning.  The Torah pictures a God Who gives commandments to Israel.  And Judaism turns to the Rabbis to interpret and apply those commandments.  I have often taught that Judaism is about “the chutzpah of the Rabbis.”  The Rabbis were willing to reinterpret the law, sometimes in a manner which seems far from the sense of the Torah.

            Nonetheless, I believe that sometimes the Rabbis got it wrong.  They lived during a time when children (and mothers) often died in childbirth.  If people mourned every baby they lost, people would often be in a constant state of mourning.  So the Rabbis ruled that only when the child is a bar kyama, “of proven viability,” is it proper to mourn.  Before that there are no traditions of mourning.  The baby is buried without the traditional practices.

            One can understand the ruling of the Rabbis.  But it does not take into account the real needs of humans.  A loss is real, whether it is a miscarriage, a stillborn, or a very young baby.  Parents (and grandparents) need to mourn.  And they need rituals tied to tradition to properly mourn.  So we observed the traditional mourning rituals, even if it is not what the Rabbis would have taught.

            This raises a deeper question.  What happens when a religious tradition does not meet the needs of the people who practice that religion?  Can a religion be adjusted or changed?  The American scholar and Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan taught that Jews do not exist to serve the needs of Judaism.  Rather Judaism exists to serve the needs of Jews.  When Judaism no longer serves the needs of Jews, it needs to be adjusted.  Kaplan made some radical changes in Judaism, going further than I would go.  But the idea of religion serving the needs of its adherents is a powerful one. 

            My wife Evelyn also mourns not being Bubbe to a second grandchild.  I appreciate her experience in the funeral business which helped us find the Hebrew Cemetery of Charlotte and a funeral home with experience helping Jewish families.  I conducted a brief and meaningful funeral, which I pray gave comfort to my daughter, son-in-law, and other family members.  It was filled with traditional Jewish rituals, even if it broke with tradition on certain points.  I felt God’s presence was there.  And that was a source of comfort for us.