It’s a hard chapter to read. Almost every one of chapter 12’s eight short verses says something that evokes reactions from puzzlement to discomfort to outrage. To grapple with these challenges, we need to listen most carefully to something which is not said.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s students ask him one of the most troubling questions the chapter demands we ask. What has this poor woman done to deserve this? Impurity? A sin offering? She should get a prize, a medal of bravery, a certificate of honor! A woman who gives birth fulfills mankind’s first, and ultimate, commandment, one of the highest expressions of imitatio dei. In partnership with God, she has become a creator. For this she brings a sin offering?
What Rabbi Shimon answers might bring a knowing smile to anyone who has witnessed or experienced childbirth. Her sin is taking an oath that she won’t keep, an oath heard from time to time in the throes of labor, sometimes an accusing glare at the husband- “I will never, EVER, do this again!” (Nidda 31b)
It’s hard to imagine Rabbi Shimon wasn’t himself smiling when he said it, but it’s what he isn’t saying that is truly profound.
The mother’s korban is a particular type of chatat called an “oleh veyored“, meaning, a korban which offers a variety of payment plans depending on financial ability. When the Torah introduced it in chapter 5, we learned that it is brought for two basic reasons: a false oath, or touching something impure. Which one of those would you think best fits the situation of the woman who has just given birth? If you read the chapter 12, the answer is completely obvious. The woman becomes impure immediately after birth, and the korban is said to “atone for her, and purify her from the source of her blood.” Clearly, her sin is impurity.
Rabbi Shimon refuses to read the Torah as a text which considers the impurity that accompanies childbirth to be sinful. He chooses instead to hear in God’s word a rich humor informed by human experience. Is he wrong?
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il