First and Foremost or Last and Lost

First and Foremost or Last and Lost

by Rabbi Alexander Coleman

The Torah portion of Tazriah begins with the laws of childbirth and how a woman, after delivering a boy, has a total period of forty days when she remains in a state of “impurity” (tumah). The first seven days are a more intense period similar to her menstrual period of separation from her husband and the subsequent thirty-three days of a lesser level, when, in Temple times, she was not permitted to enter the Beis HaMikdash. The same laws apply when she gives birth to a girl, except that the two time-periods are fourteen days and sixty-six days instead. Upon the completion of her days of “impurity”, she brings an offering.

A common question on this law law of childbirth is why would such a miraculous and magnificent delivery of human life create a state of "impurity"? And what does this impurity even mean? Sounds rather negative.

Several rabbinic thinkers explain that it’s not that childbirth is the cause of ritual impurity, but rather, "impurity" is the consequence of childbirth. What does this mean?

Human life is of immense and profound significance in terms of the spiritual impact a person can have upon the world. Our mission is to bring G-dliness and holiness into all that we touch and encounter. This is the power of life. This is the power of a human being. When a woman bears and carries such an entity, on the contrary, it is the most holy of experiences. This woman is carrying within her a developing neshama capable of immense influence. When the fetus eventually leaves her, she is now bereft and empty of that potential powerhouse within. That emptiness and vacuum is what creates the tumah. It’s similar to when a person passes away and the corpse is emptied of the neshama within. The body is vacuous of the holy neshama and is left with a spirit of tumah upon it. It may not be so far-fetched to say that the phenomenon of post-partum depression is connected to this idea.

One may wonder whether it’s really so that the tiny developing fetus possesses holiness. Isn’t it merely just a biological system – complex indeed – but not necessarily holy?


Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3) describes in great detail the early beginnings of life and the journey of the soul as it is brought down into the fetus in the womb. The following is an abridged and rendered translation:

Rebbe Yochanan said: You should know that every soul, from Adam to the end of the world, was formed during the six days of creation, and that all of them were present in the Garden of Eden and at the time of the giving of the Torah...
[Moreover], the Holy One, blessed be He, did great deeds in the formation of the embryo. At the time of conception, He informs the angel in charge of conception...and says, "Know that on this night a person will be formed from the seed of a certain individual."
The angel responds "...what have You decreed concerning it?”
The Holy One thereupon decrees what its end would be, whether male or female, weak or strong, poor or rich, short or tall, ugly or handsome, heavy or thin, humble or haughty. He decreed concerning everything that would happen to it except whether it would be righteous or wicked. That choice alone he left to the individual, as it is said: See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil (Deut. 30:15).
The Holy One, blessed be He, then summons the angel in charge of souls and says to him: Bring Me a certain soul which is in the Garden of Eden, whose name is so-and-so, and whose form is such-and-such.
The angel departs to bring the soul to the Holy One, blessed be He. When the soul is brought in, it prostrates itself before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. At that time the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the soul: Enter this seed. The soul opens its mouth and cries out: “Master of the Universe, I have always been satisfied with the place in which I dwelt from the day you created me, why do You desire that I enter this putrid drop? Now I am holy and pure, but then I will be cut off from the place of Your glory.” Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, replies: The place which you are to enter is better for you than where you have dwelt. From the moment I created you it was only for the sake of this drop.
Then the Holy One, blessed be He, forces him to enter there against his will. After that the angel turns and places the soul into the womb of its mother...
[In the womb] it looks about and peers from one end of the world to the other and the angel takes him and leads him into the Garden of Eden and shows him the righteous ones sitting there in honor, with crowns upon their heads. The angel says to him: “O soul, do you know who these are?” And the soul replies: “No, my master.” Whereupon the angel tells him: “These that you see were formed at first, just like you, in the womb of their mothers, and then went out into the world. They observed the Torah and the commandments and are now deserving and selected for this beautiful place that you see. Know that when you leave this world, if you are worthy and keep the law of the Holy One, blessed be He, you will also merit to sit among these. But if not, be assured, you will be assigned to another place.”
In the evening he leads him to the netherworld and shows him the wicked ones [experiencing their fate]. The angel says to the soul: “Do you know who these are?” And he replies: “No, my master.” Whereupon the angel tells him: “These are the ones who will be consumed. They were formed like you and went out into the world, but [did not follow G-d's will] and that is why they have come to this disgraceful end that you are witnessing. Be assured that you will ultimately leave this world, but if you are righteous and not wicked, you will be worthy to enjoy life in the world-to-come.”
The child remains in the womb of his mother for nine months...and when the time arrives for him to enter the light of the world, he rolls downward and descends... and when at last the moment arrives for his entrance into the world, the angel comes to him and says: “The time has come to enter the light of the world.” The soul then pleads with him, saying: “Why do you wish me to go out into the light of the world?” The angel replies: “You know, my son, that you were formed against your will; against your will you will be born; against your will you will die; and against your will you are destined to give an accounting before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He”. Nevertheless, he remains unwilling to leave, and so the angel strikes him with a candle that was burning at his head. Thereupon he enters into the light of the world, against his will.
Upon leaving, the infant [immediately] forgets everything he had witnessed and everything he knew. Why does the child cry out on leaving his mother’s womb? Because the place wherein he had been at rest and at ease was irretrievable and because of the condition of the world into which he must enter.
Seven stages of life then ensue...
Finally, as his end draws near, the angel comes to him and asks: “Do you not recognize me?” And he answers: “Yes, but why do you come to me on this day of all days?” The angel replies: “To take you from this world; the time of your departure has come.” He begins to cry out immediately, and his voice can be heard from one end of the earth to the other, but no one recognizes or heeds his voice except a crowing rooster. He says to the angel: “Have you not already taken me out of two worlds and brought me into this one?” And the angel responds: “Did I not tell you that you were formed against your will, that you were born against your will, that you would live against your will, and that ultimately you will have to render an accounting before the Holy One, blessed be He, against your will?” 

Such is the journey of the soul and the journey of life, always a two-way street, a choice to move up or a choice to move down, and this is the message of the very opening passage of the Midrash to our parsha too.

The very first Midrash of our parsha quotes Psalms139:5, “Last and first You have fashioned me”, and the Midrash presents a series of interpretations from various Sages as to the meaning of this verse. One of them is by Reish Lakish.

"Last" - is the last day. "First" - is the first day…. [for it says, Genesis 1:2] "And the spirit of G-d hovered upon the water" - this is the spirit of the first man.

If man merits, they say to him: "You preceded all the work of creation." But if he is not worthy, they say to him, "The gnat preceded you, the earthworm preceded you"

Commentaries explain that Reish Lakish is referring to the formation of the soul of man and the body of man. His soul was created on Day One of creation, whereas his body, not until Day Six, at which point the soul was then introduced into his body.

The message is the same as above: we have freedom of choice, to decide whether we want to move upward back to Day One and be “First” attached to our souls, elevated above the mundane and connect to God, or to go down to Day Six to be “Last” even worse than an animal indulging in all the physical cravings an animal desire. The choice is ours. God doesn’t compel. We create ourselves to be either “First and Foremost” or “Last and Lost”

Daunting? Perhaps, but one thing we have to help us in that journey is the Torah – the guide book of life, the elixir for spiritual ailment, the energy of growth. And the Midrash of our parsha goes on to quote Rabbi Simlei (also quoted by Rashi on the first possuk) who asks why the laws of purity and impurity of man (parshas Tazriah) follows after the laws of purity and impurity of animals (Shemini), and not the other way around? After all, aren’t the laws pertaining to people more important than the laws pertaining to animals?

Rabbi Simlei says: Just as the creation of man followed the creation of the animal, so too do the laws of man follow the laws of animals.

The Maharal of Prague (in his commentary Gur Aryeh on Rashi) explains that this is more than a mere cute parallel but rather fundamental to our present discussion. What is the point of life and creation? To bring sanctity and Godliness into the world, to elevate and correct it. Yet, as discussed, the potential for downfall and destruction is great. What then, is the solution? Torah and mitzvos.

The physical world was created in six days, but superimposed upon this outer shell of a world that has the potential to descend into an abyss of spiritual darkness and loss, is a program of Torah and mitzvos that are designed to elevate and transform darkness to light. Therefore fittingly, the Midrash continues and quotes Rebbe Simlai who says that the six days of creation – the physical six days that could go down to being “Last” are paralleled with Shemini and Tazriah that provide the antidote: the laws of animals and then of man, in that same order as they appear in the physical creation. The Torah of animals and the Torah of man is what fixes and elevates the world from the mundane to the sublime.

With this backdrop, it’s now more readily understood why the parsha also includes mention of circumcision on the 8th day. Even though there’s a technical appropriateness of it being there, as the Torah describes the sequence of practices after delivering a boy, but in light of the sub-theme that these laws are the complement of the creation of man to turn him from “last/body” to “first/soul”, it’s very fitting to mention the symbol of that transformation engraved upon the body: bris mila – the symbol of physical restraint and aspiration to a life of holiness.

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