David Walk
David Walk

Birth of a nation

Modern religions seem tremendously concerned with the moment of death and the inception of life. These are very thorny issues which straddle the divide between religion and science. I’m not going to contribute to these debates. I’m very happy to go to an august Halachik authority, and ask for guidance. However, I’m very interested in the meaning of birth and death. It’s the remarkable miracle of birth which is uppermost on my mind these days, as, Baruch Hashem, my DNA is spread to a growing total of descendants. And it just so happens that this week’s Torah reading deals with that particular issue. 

The first of this week’s two parshiyot begins: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean (Vayikra 12:2). The word which Chabad.org translated as ‘conceives’ is TAZRIA from the word ZERA (seed), and is the name of our parsha. However, others render it: become pregnant, receive seed, and quicken with seed (Robert Alter, which apparently means ‘plant’ as in ‘Quicken the seed in the dark damp earth’). This last approach compares children to crops, sort of. 

What idea is being presented? Rashi suggests that the verse informs us that the mother becomes impure even if the child doesn’t survive the pregnancy, God forbid. Others, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, S’forno, get into the biology of pregnancy. Their comments remind me why I never considered medical school. 

There are many commentaries who comment on the fact that the words KI TAZRIA are actually superfluous, many English translations skip them entirely. The number of explanations for their inclusion is vast. Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests that this phrase informs us that humans go through three stages of existence: the womb, this world and the world to come. On the other hand, I really like what the Ohr HaChaim said: the nature of the soul or personality of a baby is determined by the thoughts of the father and mother during marital union (based on Zohar Kedoshim).  

Within Kabbala and Chassidut, the term ISH or ‘man’ often refers to God. While ISHA or woman can refer to humanity or, on occasion, to a different aspect of Divinity, SHECHINA. Let’s assume that in our case ISHA means human beings. If that is true then the idea of the Ohr HaChaim could be that the human partners with God (like the Talmud in Niddah that there are three parents or partners in each child: mother, father, God) in this new born baby share God’s desire for this child: To be part of the great Covenant and destiny of the Jewish nation. We can’t just want our child to carry our name or continue our business; this new soul must join the eternal chain of Jewish existence. 

According to the Mei HaShiloach this is the question of the angels to God when Moshe ascended to receive the Torah. They demanded, ‘Why is there a human born of woman amongst us?’ They assumed that Moshe, like most humans, was the result of earthly desires and needs.  But God knew, and they soon discovered that Yocheved and Amram produced special children, because their desire for this Moshe was pure and holy, just as God wants. Moshe is a product of an aspiration for the continuity of the Covenant made with Avraham Avinu. 

Now when we look back at the verse, the words KI TAZRIA could never be construed as superfluous. They are the very core idea of our people. How do I know that? God told it to Avraham Avinu at the inception of our people. When God first told Avraham that Eretz Yisroel would be his forever, it was with these words, ‘To your seed (ZAR’ACHA), I will give this land (Breishit 12:7).’ And when the eternal covenant is made with Avraham, this is how God said it, ‘Know well that your seed shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years… To your seed I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates (15:13 & 18).’ 

Every birth of every Jewish child is a rebirth of the entire people. Our peoplehood is always predicated on this holy act of planting.  

All the promises, deals, covenants and agreements with the Avot were for the children and the children’s children. I remember going to an auction fundraiser for a school in which I taught, and the wonderful Jewish soul who conducted the bidding, continuously reminded us, ‘Remember it’s for the children!’ 

That’s what our parsha is reminding us. It’s not just for the children, it is about the children. They are our most precious product. We must remember that our yearnings for them must always be calibrated based on the teachings and instructions of the holy Third Partner. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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