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D'var Torah (Tazri'a)

Birth of Humility

This week is one of the least popular bar or bat mitzvah portions in all the Torah. It is filled with laws for how to recognize and treat leprosy when it is found on one’s body, one’s clothes or in one’s home. Most kids are a bit squeamish about skin diseases, so they search for anything else in the portion that they might talk about. 

Unfortunately for the sensitivities of young teenagers, the only other rules enumerated in this week’s portion have to do with the experiences women have giving birth. Depending upon whether she gives birth to a boy or girl baby, a woman is considered spiritually unclean for a specific number of days (33 or 66 days respectively), and is then told to bring offerings and sacrifices of atonement to the priests. You can just imagine how thrilled 13 year old boys are to discover that Tazria is their Torah portion! 

Actually, the sages of old were a bit puzzled by this portion as well. After all, the very first mitzvah in the Torah is p'ru u-r'vu,  “Be fruitful and multiply,” so you would think that giving birth was a cause for celebration and congratulations from God and human beings alike. So why the need for the new mother to bring a “sin offering” of atonement for simply giving birth? 

Some of the ancient rabbis with a sense of humor suggested that in the moment of her birth pains from contractions the woman was likely to cry out, “If I live through this I will never let you touch me again!” So the “sin” for which she has to atone is the sin of making a vow that in the light of day she has no intention of actually keeping (her husband hopes). 

I suspect that there is a much more profound spiritual idea embedded in this commandment for the woman to bring an offering, and that it has to do with the transcendent creative power that a woman experiences in the very process of bringing new life into the world. 

The Torah teaches us in the very beginning of Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. We know that this doesn’t mean we look like God (since every one of us looks different); it must mean that we somehow share in one or more of the qualities or attributes of God. It is this ability to reflect Godliness in who we are and what we do that is the true spiritual gift of being created in God’s image. 

Whenever I ask any group of people to identify a moment when they experienced God’s presence in their lives, a moment when they felt close to God or a moment when they experienced a profound sense of holiness, the very first thing that every single group immediately says is “giving birth.” It is in our ability to participate in this profound experience of imitating the creative power of God by giving birth to babies that we most intimately and directly feel the power of holiness in the world. 

That is why I believe that the real reason women are commanded to bring a sin offering of atonement after giving birth, is to acknowledge the profound sense of humility that inevitably follows the experience of serving as a sacred vessel for the creation of new life. With the miracle of birth comes a sudden awareness of our own mortality, a deep appreciation for the everyday miracles that we so often take for granted, and an intense desire to express our gratitude for the blessings and spiritual gifts we have been given. 

We atone for the fact that most of the time we walk through our lives blind to the miracles that surround us. Most of the time we act as if we are unconscious of the incredible blessings that fill every garden, sparkle from every flower, nourish us from every stalk of grain and every mountain stream. 

In the week I wrote these words, I found myself comforting three members of our community who have recently discovered malignancies in their bodies, and sat with a young widow whose husband (and father to a 9 year old boy) died just yesterday from a sudden heart attack. How precious is every day that is given to us. How filled with blessings and miracles are most of our lives. And one of our greatest gifts is the simple ability to stand in awe of life itself and give thanks. 

Rabbi Emeritus, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California

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