Rabbi Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City (1999-2000)
Head of the English Speaking Section of the “Puah” Institute
The Public and the Private
This week’s Parshah continues the theme of the Book of Vayikra that is also called Torat Cohanim, the laws related to the Cohanim and the Temple service. Someone who wants to enter into the Temple compound or to consume sacrifices has to be tahor, pure. And so Tazria deals with the intricate and complex laws of who is pure and who is impure and is barred from entering the Temple.
However the Parshah opens up discussing the impurity of the postpartum woman. “A woman who gives seed and bears a son, she shall be impure for seven days like the impurity of menstruation”. These two examples, giving birth and menstruation, take us out of the Temple and bring us right back to our homes, to our bodies, to the intimate areas of our lives.
It appears that the Torah is teaching a lesson by starting the discussion of purity and impurity at home, in the private arena, and only subsequently connecting them to the Temple. Other examples of impurity are also personal and private, such as ejaculation, death and the skin blemishes that we will read about next week.
To really understand the Torah’s message we have to examine the deeper meaning of the terms purity and impurity.
Purity as Connection
Often we mistakenly assume that purity and impurity are synonymous with cleanliness or the opposite; being dirty. Yet this is clearly not the case as impurity exists in these private areas that are not immediately associated with being clean or dirty.
Rather impurity comes when one is disconnected from God. The closer we are connected to God the more we have a sense of taharah, or purity. That is why one who comes to the Temple needs to be pure. Simply coming to the Temple is a physical act but it conveys a much deeper message of connection with God. The word korban, sacrifice, comes from the word karov, meaning close, and the sacrifices are a medium by which we can draw close to God. To do so we need to be pure and in doing so we enhance our own purity.
The closest thing to God is life itself; in fact living and preserving life takes halachic precedence over almost all of the Torah itself. God declares that life itself is the dearest thing in His world and the holiest entity that there is.
The opposite of life causes the ultimate impurity. Death and a dead body are the epitome of tumah and cause anyone to become impure even if they had indirect contact with the corpse; for example, if they were in the same building as a dead person.
The Living Torah
So why is a woman who gives birth impure? In his recent book on miscarriage, Rabbi Avraham Stav brings a moving and inspiring essay by Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein. He describes the wonder of the period of pregnancy during which a woman is usually pure for several months. The woman harvests life within her and this life that grows brings with it purity. Rabbi Zilberstein describes the woman as though she is carrying a Torah scroll in her womb and she is like the Ark in the synagogue that contains the most holy thing that we have today, the Torah scroll. In the same way that the Torah scroll does not and cannot become impure so too the pregnant woman has a long period of purity due to her elevated and special status. This is a wonderful time for the expecting parents that carries with it great hope and often a considerable amount of trepidation due to the tremendous responsibility that they feel by having been given this great gift of life.
What happens when the woman delivers the baby? This purity, sanctity and life leaves her body and a vacuum is created. Since there is no spiritual vacuum when the life leaves her she becomes somewhat detached from that life and this leaves her impure for a certain time period.
This is a result of the elevated status that she had during the pregnancy and the spiritual heights that she attained by her ability to nurture life.
There is another message here as well; purity and impurity are natural and part of the circle of life. We need not fear them but recognize the cycle that occurs for each person. So too in our relationship with God, we have times when we are closer and times when we feel further apart, detached and less connected. This need not frighten us but we must be conscious of this ebb and flow in our relationship with Him, to embrace the times of proximity that give us strength to overcome the times of distance and estrangement.