Our Torah portion begins with the laws of tumah (impurity) for a woman after childbirth:
Speak to the Jewish people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure just as at the time of separation when she menstruates. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood-purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any holy thing, nor enter the Sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood-purification for sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:2-5).
From among the many discussions about these verses, we will raise three central questions.
1. Why is there tumah following childbirth? Generally speaking, tumah is connected with death, such as a human or animal corpse, or with the loss of potential life, such as a ba’al keri (one who has had a seminal emission) or a niddah (a menstruant). Why does bringing new life into the world cause tumah?
2. Why is the tumah twice as long when a girl is born?
3. Why is circumcision (brit milah) mentioned here? The Torah already commanded circumcision in the portion of Lekh Lekha, and it seems out of place here.
Chazal explain (Shabbat 132b) that the additional mention of circumcision here comes to teach us that circumcision always takes place on the eighth day, even if the eighth day is Shabbat. Shabbat symbolizes the holiness of nature, the respect that created beings feel for the act of creation. The Maharal explains at length that the number seven – which is connected to Shabbat – expresses the holiness that is within nature, while the number eight – which is connected to circumcision – expresses the extra holiness that man can achieve beyond that of nature.
Circumcision on the eighth day is an improvement on nature, in accordance with the command of God. As such, the level of holiness it achieves is higher than the holiness which is inherent in nature as God’s creation. Therefore, circumcision on the eighth day overrides Shabbat.
With this insight we can answer our other questions. Nature is beautiful, and it involves the creation of life. But nature is also cyclical and blind, and it involves much pain and suffering. Birth expresses this duality of nature. Birth brings new life to the world, but the act is accompanied by blood and great pain, and is sometimes life-threatening. From the moment of birth, the interconnection of body and soul is present and wondrous. Yet physicality is responsible for our impulses, our vulnerability to the forces of nature, the deterioration of our bodies and our ultimate death. With every birth, we come face to face with the sin of Adam and Eve which led to the debasement of the material world and of nature, and which left us with the current world where all are subject to the cycle of life. We are all born and we all die.
The joy at a birth is mixed with pain. The appearance of new life is mixed with the death which is part of the cycle of life. This is the source of the tumah which follows birth. Why is circumcision mentioned at this very point? Because it is the way in which man enters into a covenant with God and rises above nature. The placement of this verse also explains why the time period of tumah is shorter following the birth of a boy – the circumcision is a corrective to tumah so it shortens the tumah’s duration.
Both male and female undergo physical changes which are connected to a covenant and the reproductive organs – the male at the covenant of circumcision and the female at the covenant of marriage (with the breaking of the hymen). The corrective for the female’s body takes place at a later age and is not connected with birth, and therefore it does not shorten the duration of tumah after the birth of a girl.
The ability of the Jewish people to bring holiness beyond nature to the world will lead, with God’s help, to man’s victory over death and tumah, and will serve as a corrective for the sin of Adam and Eve. This hope is reflected in the blessing we recite at the covenant of circumcision: “Rescue our beloved from destruction, for the sake of His covenant that He has placed in our flesh.” The hope is also reflected in the blessing we recite at the covenant of marriage: “Gladden these beloved companions as You gladdened Your creation in the Garden of Eden of old.”