Parshat Tazria — Rabbi Riskin (text)

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

Efrat, Israel –  “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev.12:3).

This week’s Torah reading is not only difficult because of its subject matter – the ritual status of a woman after she gives birth as well as the ritual impurity which devolves upon both men and women when semen or blood emerges from their bodies – but also in terms of the very strange order of the verses and the chapters.

The first question arises from a verse that seemingly has no connection to what precedes or follows it: after the Bible has informed us that when a woman bears a male child she will be ritually impure for seven days (Lev. 12:2), the following verse does not deal with the subsequent days of ritual purity, which she is allowed to enjoy no matter what her physical state may be.  Instead, that comes two verses later (ibid. 12:4).  In between,  the Bible informs us “on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”  Why place the law of circumcision in the very midst of the laws of a woman’s status of purity upon her giving birth? It hardly seems to belong!

The second question deals with the order of the chapters. Chapter 12 deals with ritual purity and impurity as a result of childbirth, as we have seen. Chapter 15 deals with the different kinds of male seminal emissions and the different kinds of female blood emissions that are also connected to reproduction as a result of a sexual act between the couple. In the midst of these two Biblical discussions, which certainly involve ritual impurity and impurity surrounding reproduction, come two chapters 13 and 14 – which deal with tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy” but that actually refers to a discoloration and degeneration of the skin which cause the individual to look like a walking corpse. Why bring in tzara’at to the midst of a discussion on reproduction?

In Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s important work Family Redeemed, my revered teacher interprets the opening chapters of Genesis as a crucial lesson to humanity concerning the spiritual potential as well as the destructive danger of the sexual act. Indeed, the classical commentator Rashi understands the fruit of knowledge of good and evil as possessing human nature libido, eroticism and lust rather than the expression of love and the reproductive powers which were initially imbedded in human nature. Sigmund Freud sees the serpent as a phallic symbol and “eating” is often found in the Bible as a metaphor for engaging in sex. From this perspective, the sin of partaking of the forbidden fruit is the sin of sexual lust, which can often separate sex from the sacred institution of matrimony, from a natural expression of affection between two individuals who are committed to a shared life and to the establishment of a family.

It is fascinating that the punishments for eating the fruit are related to reproduction: “And to the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain and travail in pregnancy and with pain shall you bring forth children.’” (Gen. 3:16). Even more to the point, the most fundamental penalty for having tasted of the forbidden fruit is death, which plagues men and woman alike: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17) The sexual act was meant to give not only unity and joy to the couple, but also to bestow continued life through the gift of reproduction.

I would argue that this is precisely why tzara’at, or the living death which it symbolizes, appears in the Bible in the midst of its discussion of reproduction and the normative processes of seminal emissions and menstrual blood which are necessary byproducts of the glory of reproduction. Tragically the life-force which is granted by God through the sexual organs can often degenerate into decay and death when those very sexual organs are misused.

I will also submit that this is precisely why the commandment of circumcision on the eighth day comes right before the Biblical establishment of a large number of days of purity (33 days after the birth of a male and 66 days after the birth of a female) no matter what blood may emerge from the woman’s body. The much larger number of days attests to the great miracle of childbirth – which is always a heartbeat away from death for every anxious parent until the healthy baby emerges and omits its first cry.  The birthing mother’s days of ritual impurity counterbalance new life and the continuation of the family line, giving the greatest degree of satisfaction that a human being can ever experience. Such glories of reproduction are only possible if the male will learn to limit his sexual activity to being within the institution of marriage and will recognize the sanctity of sex as well as its pleasures. Placing the Divine mark upon the male sexual organ with the performance of the commandment of circumcision establishes this ideal of sanctity. The sacredness of the woman’s body is similarly expressed when she immerses herself in a mikveh prior to resuming sexual relations with her husband each month and even makes a blessing to G-d while still unclothed within the ritual waters which symbolize life and birth and future.

Hence, the most meaningful blessing which I know is intoned during the marriage ceremony: “Blessed are You O Lord our G-d King of the Universe, who sanctifies his nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of marriage.”

Shabbat Shalom

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