Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)
Much of Parshat Tazria deals with various issues connected to the impurities of the spiritual illness known as “tzara’at” (commonly translated as leprosy), how tzara’at is diagnosed by the Kohanim, and how people became purified of it. However, the introduction to all of the subjects discussed is something entirely different. The portion begins with a special, somewhat strange mitzvah:
“When a woman conceives and give birth to a male, she shall be impure for a seven-day period…” (Vayikra / Leviticus 12:1)
In other words, any woman who gives birth is considered impure during the seven days following childbirth.
We don’t truly understand the principles that comprise the concepts of taharah (purity) and tum’ah (impurity), but one principle is crystal-clear: impurity is intrinsically linked to death. Dead bodies are considered the “greatest of all impurities,” and anyone who touches a dead body is considered highly impure.
Direct contact with the carcasses of dead animal causes humans to become impure as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Unlike other religions, which believed death to be symbolic of sanctity, spirituality and purity, Judaism felt that death is the source of all evil, the chink in the armor of a finite material world. For us, purity is tied to life, to a living wellspring. The impure must immerse in a mikveh in order to be restored to a state of purity, as the verse states:
“And I shall cast upon you pure water” (Yechezkel / Ezekiel 36:25).
If so, new mothers should be given an award for purity. After all, they bring new life into the world. Why should they be considered impure for seven days, just like those who touched dead bodies? This certainly strikes us as odd. But the Torah doesn’t stop there. It says that each new mother needs to bring a sin-offering to the Temple at the conclusion of her period of impurity. This halachah, too, seems quite strange to us.
Usually, people needed to bring sin-offerings when they had willfully committed transgressions that warranted the penalty of a karet (Heaven-inflicted death). But new mothers hadn’t sinned at all – in fact, they had done the exact opposite! They endured immense suffering while carrying a fetus in their womb for nine months, only to suffer from agonizing labor pains as the child was born. In doing so, these mothers participated in the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, and increasing life in the world. And now, after giving birth, these mothers need to bring a sin-offering? Why? What terrible wrong had they committed?
Our Sages say that while enduring the pains of childbirth, a woman vows to herself that she will never give birth again. Since she will be very likely to break this vow, she therefore needs to bring a sin-offering. However, this answer doesn’t seem to fully answer the question.
If this is the reason for bringing a sacrifice, then those mothers should simply wait to see if they give birth again. Only if they indeed give birth again should they be required to bring the sacrifice then. After all, at this point, no one knows whether this mother will give birth again or not.
It turns out that our Sages wanted to teach that the very vow to not give birth again due to the suffering connected to childbirth is a sin in and of itself, even before the forces of life guide the mother to give birth once more.
Bringing a child into the world does not cause impurity. On the contrary – any additional life and joy in the world increase purity. But the Torah was careful to point out that every birth process is accompanied by a bitter and difficult feeling of weakness and frustration, and primarily by pain.
There are few instant births. Birth is typically a long, exhausting experience that can sometimes be quite frustrating. It is this frustration and weakness that we call impurity. When bearing witness to a woman undergoing a crisis, we need a lot of strength to see how a new child is born, and how it brings its blessings. The way is paved with blood and a great deal of tears wept in suffering.
The process that produces the birth of a nation is also preceded by terrible hardships. Raba, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, who was cognizant of the sheer magnitude of the suffering we would need to endure as a nation prior to the advent of the redemption, used the harsh expression “[it] will come and I will not see it…” (Tractate Sanhedrin, 98b) to describe the salvation of the Jewish People. He was saying, in effect: ‘I truly hope that the day of redemption arrives, but I prefer not to see it, because of the terrible suffering that accompanies the process’.
We are part of a generation that, for the most part, has not witnessed terrible suffering first-hand. Our parents may still be talking about that suffering, and living testimonies still resonate throughout our world.
It is true that our generation, too, has seen some degree of suffering. We have seen the quantity of blood spilled in the effort to create the State of Israel. But we have also lived to witness the “resurrection of dry bones.”
We are part of a generation that has personally witnessed the fulfillment of a dream dreamt by generations. We can already begin ridding ourselves of the feelings of weakness and impurity, and fulfilling the remainder of the verse: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (ibid., 12:2). We, who have already witnessed the dream coming to life, can wholeheartedly exclaim: “This is the child I had prayed for.”
We all agree that there is plenty of room for improvement. There are plenty of internal and external “foreskins” of which we need to rid ourselves, but we also must not be ungrateful. We must be thankful for what we have, and do all we can to fix, with Hashem’s help, whatever needs fixing.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
Would you like to receive Rabbi Stav’s weekly Dvar Torah and updates from OTS direct to your inbox?