Life and Death
Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )
And God spoke to Moses saying: 'Speak to the children of Israel to say to them that when a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be spiritually impure for seven days, like in the days of menstruation ... On the eighth day circumcise the flesh of the foreskin ... " (Leviticus 12:1-3)
Thus the Torah begins teaching the laws of childbirth, the details of which include the laws of "spiritual purity" and "spiritual impurity" or tumah and tahara.
The idea of tumah and tahara was raised earlier in the Torah when kosher animals were discussed. However the idea of niddah or "menstruation" was not previously mentioned, so the comparison of a new mother to a menstruating woman is puzzling.
A second problem in the text concerns the response to childbirth that the Torah calls for:
"At the completion of her days of purification she shall bring a ... burnt offering and a ... sin offering." (Leviticus 12:6)
The burnt offering is understandable, but why would the new mother be required to bring a sin offering? What sin did she commit?
A TIME OF MOURNING
The Talmud explains that the pain of childbirth may have been so severe that she might have sworn not to be intimate with her husband again.
But the Ba'al HaTurim offers a startling comments, noting that the separation for seven days following birth, which is like the time prescribed for a menstruating woman, is comparable to the seven days of mourning.
This idea has its origin in the Zohar, and is understandable regarding menstruation: The concept of mourning for seven days is the human response to death, and the period of mourning is one of separation from society.
When we consider the time of niddah as a type of mourning, we realize that the menstrual blood is literally representative of a life which did not come to fruition. Therefore Judaism, with its supreme value for human life, goes so far as to call upon us to respond to the loss of potential life. The Zohar's teaching thus provides insight into the essence of the laws of niddah, where husband and wife separate and observe their private mourning for the child that was not born.
But why would the Ba'al HaTurim think of mourning in reference to a case of an actual birth?
But why would the Ba'al HaTurim introduce this concept at this juncture, in the case of an actual birth of a very real son? Indeed, the question could be posed on the verse itself: Why would the separation called for after childbirth be paralleled with the niddah state at all?
BACK TO THE GARDEN
In order to resolve these difficulties, let us consider Rashi's comments on the first verse of this Torah portion. Citing the Midrash, Rashi observes:
Rav Simlai said: "Just as man's creation followed that of all of the animals ... in the process of creation, so these laws follow those of the animals." (Rashi 12:2)
There is evidently something about these laws which invites a comparison with the days of creation. The reference to the number seven should alert us to a possible connection with the seven days of creation. On the sixth day, after all other creatures are created, man is created.
The Lord God commanded man saying, 'Of all trees of the Garden you shall eat. And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you will not eat, for on the day you eat from it you will surely die.' (Genesis 2:16-17)
We are well acquainted with the tragic end of the story. Eve and Adam eat from the tree, and although death is not the immediate result of their transgression, they become mortal. God's specific reaction to Eve's sin sheds light on our subject:
To the woman He said: 'I will greatly increase your sorrow and your pregnancy. In sorrow will you bear children.' (Genesis 3:16)
Instead of death, we find Eve, and indeed all of womankind, are told what awaits them in childbearing and childbirth. The Talmud teaches that the phrase I will greatly increase your sorrow refers to menstrual blood, the implication being that, if not for the sin of the forbidden fruit, women would not have had a menstrual cycle at all. Rather, childbirth would have been a painless, automatic, almost immediate result of physical intimacy.
In a perfect, idyllic world, there is no pain, there is no mourning. Now, perhaps, we can understand the comments of the Ba'al HaTurim. Every childbirth reminds us of the sin and punishment of Eve. We live in a world bounded by mortality, and we are forced to realize that the child who was born is destined to die.
This explains the separation following childbirth and the comparison to menstruation. Both are results of the same sin, and while niddah responds to the potential life which was frustrated, the separation after childbirth is mourning for the necessity of the process of childbirth and for the mortality of the child born of this process.
Childbirth is so completely intertwined with the sin of Eve, that a sin offering seems completely natural.
The logic in requiring a sin offering now becomes apparent. Childbirth is so completely intertwined with the sin of Eve, so totally identified with and resultant from it, that a sin offering at the conclusion of this process now seems completely natural.
We may now understand why the separation period following the birth of a daughter is twice as long as the separation following the birth of a son. After the birth of a girl, the mourning for our mortality and pain is that much greater, for the child born is not only the victim of mortality but also the transmitter, as it were. She, too, will die, but more poignantly, she will carry the results of sin into the next generation. She will be the next to suffer the unavoidable consequences of sin which have become part and parcel of human existence.
The Torah commands that on the eighth day the son born is to be circumcised. The number eight represents that which is beyond the physical, beyond the seven days of "nature."
The idea of circumcision is that of man controlling his desires, transcending his own physical identity. In that sense, circumcision is a perfection of nature which elevates mankind.
It was Adam and Eve who, while succumbing to their desires, set in motion the chain of mortality and pain, and the Torah here supplies us with a means of breaking the chain.
The laws of niddah detail the counting of seven "clean days" prior to immersion in the mikveh, which is referred to as mayim hayim, literally, "water of life."
Another reference in the Torah to counting is the seven weeks of counting the omer in the period between Passover, the day of liberation, and Shavuot, the day the Torah was given at Sinai.
The Zohar (Vayikra 97 a-b) compares the counting of the seven clean days with this counting of the seven weeks of the omer. Just as a woman counts the time between tumah "spiritual impurity" and tahara, "spiritual purity" so too Israel counts the period between their redemption from the impurity and suffering of Egypt, and the culmination of this period at Sinai.
When a woman emerges from the mikveh, what follows is a reunion with her husband and a chance for new life to enter the world. When the Jewish people encountered God at Sinai, they, too formed a union which gave new life, and hope.
The imagery of Torah as a Tree of Life and, alternatively, as water has been repeated time after time. At Sinai, the Jews received the Torah, the true elixir of life.
Adhering to the Torah keeps man actively in union with God. When the time comes and all the world accepts God and His Torah, death will become a thing of the past, as Isaiah prophesied:
Death will be erased for all eternity, the God the Lord will wipe away all tears. (Isaiah 25:8)
In that day there will be no death and no sorrow.