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Some years ago, while I was visiting my rabbi at his home in Jerusalem, a group of elder scholars stopped in to consult with him. It seems there had been a number of serious illnesses in the neighborhood over the previous few months and a fatal accident just a week before. The neighborhood leaders were alarmed at this upsurge of tragic occurrences and had come to consult with my rabbi about what soul-searching the community should undertake.
This idea of seeing unfortunate events as a call to examine one's deeds is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. In such circumstances, a person should perform a cheshbon hanefesh - literally "an examination of actions" - and affirm the need to make improvements in behavior. This, together with prayer, is considered the hallmark of the way Jews reacted to difficult situations.
OH NO, NOT AGAIN!
This concept is alluded to in this week's Torah portion, Tazria.
The parsha begins by discussing the laws of a woman who has just given birth. A number of weeks after the happy event, she brings special offerings to the Holy Temple: a lamb for a burnt offering and a turtledove for a sin offering. The burnt offering is an expression of thanks for the Almighty's kindness. But why the sin offering? What possible sin has a woman committed by giving birth? After all, isn't bearing a child a mitzvah?
The commentators offer a number of explanations. One interpretation notes that since giving birth involves considerable pain and discomfort, a woman might declare that she will never want to bear a child again. While such a sentiment is understandable under those circumstances, it is nevertheless contrary to the Creator's command "to be fruitful and multiply." (In order not to embarrass specific women, the Torah required that all women bring a sin offering.)
PAST AND FUTURE
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman offers another explanation. He notes that the actual delivery of a child is a most fantastic, uplifting experience. Yet along with its majesty, the experience can also elicit feelings of humility from the mother. She may feel almost undeserving of such a miracle, knowing that she has been guilty of past transgressions. To reconcile these feelings, the Torah has her bring a sin offering.
Another explanation is suggested by the very nature of the birth experience. In the days before modern medicine, childbirth was a dangerous event. Facing this threat to her life, a Jewish woman would follow a time-honored tradition, undertaking a cheshbon hanesfesh of her actions, acknowledging past mistakes and committing to new good deeds.
After asserting the need to improve behavior, it was only proper that the Torah provide these women with the opportunity to bring a sin offering, a testimony to their sincere desire to change their ways. Thus, it was not so much past sins as affirmation of future growth that was symbolized by this enigmatic offering.