Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 April 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

Parshat Tazria

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Purity in Freedom

The Torah outlines the purification for a woman after birth: for any birth, there is an initial seven day period of impurity. If the baby is a boy, on the eighth day the child is circumcised. After this eighth day, the mother waits a period 33 days — a purification cycle — until she brings her korban in the Beit Hamikdash. If she gives birth to a daughter, the purification period is twice as long — 66 days. The obvious is question, is, why the disparity?

Before we can answer this question, we turn to a general understanding of the sources of impurity, which include a dead animal (which has not been halachically slaughtered), creepy crawlers, certain bodily emissions, leprosy, and certain elements of the Temple service (e.g. leading the he-goat to the wilderness on Yom Kippur, and involvement with the ashes of the red heifer).

Man is destined to live in moral freedom. Yet, whenever a living organism succumbs to compelling physical forces, this is liable to give rise to the notion that man lacks freedom. Impurity — tumah — results from encounters which threaten our awareness of the moral freedom of man. There is nothing that fosters this notion more than a dead body, and it is for this reason that one who touches a dead body is rendered impure. Indeed, this resultant impurity is of the highest order and has many stringencies associated with it. The purification process symbolically reaffirms moral freedom, unfettered by any external constraint.

Why would childbirth induce a state of tumah? The mother’s effort and labor in producing a child is merely a physical process — from the “planting” phase (tazria) to the birth. Man is formed, takes shape and grows like a plant, in a process that has the most minimal human imprint. Although surely a woman experiences discomfort and effort in carrying and birthing a child, the process, once in motion, is markedly independent of any human choice or input. The entire physical process by which man comes into being — similar to the physical process which ends his life — threatens the awareness of man’s moral freedom. Therefore, precisely here, where man is brought into being, we are reminded that man need not succumb to the forces of nature. The mother — under the fresh impression of her passive and painful submission to the physical forces of nature which formed this child and led to the child’s birth — must renew her consciousness of her moral stature.

This accounts for a single cycle of purification of 33 days — the process restores awareness of moral freedom and moral imperative. Why is it doubled in the case of a daughter?

On the day of circumcision, the father fulfills the first of the duties incumbent upon a father concerning his son. At this time the father resolves to prepare his son for the life that lies ahead: he is to train him to walk before G-d, in complete adherence to Torah, and through his own conduct serve as a role model for his son to emulate on his future path.

Following the birth of a daughter, the purity cycle is doubled — 66 days. This is meant to impress on the mother the full magnitude of her task — to be an example and role model of the Jewish woman of the future. Indeed, the mother’s influence on the moral standards of her daughters is twice as great as her influence on the moral development of her sons. A crucial part of her sons’ education comes from the father, as he becomes the male role model for them. With daughters, however, the mother is both a role model and a molder of character. Hence, after the birth of each daughter she must doubly prepare herself — for her own sake and for her daughter’s sake — to fully embrace the moral freedom granted her, and ascend the path of purity.

§ Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 7:19-21, 12:2, 4-5

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