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:
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.