The first time I taught Parashat Tazria, to a group of young women at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA) in Chicago, Illinois, was exactly 30 years ago. It was a particularly appropriate Torah portion, as I was pregnant. More poignantly, this was my first pregnancy after almost four years of infertility treatment. At the point in the year when we were learning Tazria, however, I already knew what my students would only find out after I gave birth: my daughter was not viable and would be stillborn.
Tazria begins with a description of the period of ritual impurity following childbirth. In doing so, the Torah connects the process of creating new humans to the process of Creation. Rashi (Vayikra 12:2), quoting Vayikra Rabbah, points out that just as the creation of animals precedes the creation of humans, so too the laws of purity and impurity of animals precede those of humans. In the middle of discussing the laws and rituals imbued with sanctity, we are reminded that having a soul is a responsibility, and holiness and purity are a part of that. If we live up to our being created in the image of God — merging the corporeal and concrete with the Divine and infinite — then the whole of Creation is laid out before us, and we and our new children are at the top of the terrestrial ladder. On the other hand, if we cede to our baser natures and abrogate our responsibilities to God, one another, and ourselves, then we need to be reminded that all other animals were created before us.
Both the content and language of the first five verses of the parasha raise multiple questions. The word tazria, often translated as “she becomes pregnant,” is only used in one other place in the Torah: in Genesis 1, on the third day of Creation, when discussing the creation of plant life. Women are trees? In a way, yes. Humans are often compared to trees in the Bible; the first verb of the command to procreate is peru, “be fruitful.” In Deuteronomy (20:19), we are forbidden to chop down the enemy’s fruit trees in wartime because “humans are like the trees of the field,” and in Psalms, King David compares the righteous to date palms and cedars. In becoming pregnant and bearing children, women are simultaneously drawing on their roots — genetic and psychological — and extending their branches to the future. Furthermore, their fruits carry the seeds of future trees. The Torah, in using the word tazria, connects women to the very beginning of Creation — organic life — as well as to the future of humanity.
The Torah tells us that when a male child is born, the woman is ritually impure to her husband for seven days, and to the Temple service for 33 more. The number of days for each aspect are doubled in the case of a female child being born. There are many explanations given for these numbers and gender-connected differences, and some are quite upsetting to our 21st century understanding. Viewing the processes of pregnancy and birth through a more kabbalistic and even Hasidic lens, however, leads us to understand how women are the embodiments of holiness and divinity.
Seven is a number symbolizing nature and completion: there are seven days of the week, Shabbat is the seventh day, the shemitah (sabbatical) cycle is seven years, and more. Forty is also significant — Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days, and the rain of the Flood lasted for 40 days — and represents worlds, both spiritual and physical, being destroyed or built. It is logical and consistent that the return to purity after the most natural event — childbirth — should include those numbers. The questions remain, however: Why does childbirth result in impurity at all? And why is the number of days for a female child double that of a male?
As Jews, we are expected and even commanded to emulate God. We are told: “As He is merciful, so should you be merciful,” and so on. The most essential and divine act of God is creating the world ex nihilo. When a woman becomes pregnant, she too is involved in creating, and then housing and nourishing, a new world. She is carrying not only another body, but another soul; she is, quite literally, godly, God-like. When she gives birth, the precious, intimate and internal connection to her newborn is broken. The physical impurity that follows birth is a manifestation of the spiritual loss; the woman loses a direct connection to God.
The Hasidic master, the Rebbe of Kotzk, explains that there is a shiva process after birth. If the shiva for humans is seven days, then the mourning period for losing God, so to speak, should be at least double that. Circumcision, commanded by God, brings the shiva to an early end, but the process for a female takes its full course of 14 days. When a woman gives birth to a girl, she is also bringing a new life-giver, a new creator, into the world. Her connection to Creation and the Divine during pregnancy is double; upon birth, she both loses her own connection and anticipates the loss her daughter will eventually experience.
We become physically impure in order to reflect a spiritual distance; that is why impurity is attached to death of both actual and even potential life. It takes time to repair, recover, and return. Being connected to the Creator and Creation is about as much as a human can achieve. Thus, in the case of childbirth, the length of impurity reflects the intensity and intricacy of the previous connection.
My personal story has two wonderful endings: I am the unabashedly proud mother of a son and a daughter; and my ICJA girls — now women themselves — bought Parashat Tazria for me when a Chicago synagogue was dedicating a new Torah scroll. I am profoundly grateful and humbled by the blessed branches of my tree.