Tazria-Metzora: The Sky’s the Limit

Of the many ways to define man’s purpose in creation, perhaps the most empowering calls for man to actualize his creative potential.  Rabbi Soloveitchik put it like this: “Creation finds its expression in man’s fulfilling all of his tasks, causing all of the potentiality implanted in him to emerge into actuality utilizing all of his manifold possibilities, and fully bringing to fruition his own noble personality” (Halakhic Man, p.132).

So essential to creation is the capacity for actualization that man’s very physiology is informed with creative potential, the creating of a child being the most fundamental expression of this lofty goal.  Yet if this is so, the opening passage of this week’s parsha gives us pause:

If a woman conceive, and bear a male, then she shall be unclean (tamei’ah) seven days; … And she shall continue in the blood of purification thirty-three days; … But if she bear a female, then she shall be unclean (tamei’ah) two weeks, … and she shall continue in the blood of purification sixty-six days. And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering (olah), and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a sin-offering (hatat), … unto the priest. And he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her … (Leviticus 12:2-7)

Questions abound: Why does a woman enter a state of impurity (tumah) upon giving birth?  Why does this state persist twice as long upon the birth of a daughter as opposed to the birth of a son?  Why does the woman need atonement through a sin-offering?  What is the purpose of the burnt-offering?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding a subtle, yet critical, point about self-actualization; Viktor Frankl explains:

Man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life. … The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or a person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.  What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.  In other words, self-actualization is only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence. (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.133)

That is, in order to truly actualize one must forget about actualization, about the actual, which is limited to one’s self-perceptions, and look beyond the self to the transcendent, to the potential.  Rabbi Reuven Bulka explains that: “Man oscillates between the subjective ‘I am’ [actual being] and the objective ‘I ought’ [potential being], and insofar as he strives for the ‘ought’ he transcends his self and actualizes his responsibilities.  In Frankl’s view, ‘Existence falters unless it is lived in terms of transcendence toward something beyond itself.’”

Potential, however, is not only the transcendent aim of man, but the very measure of his actualization.   The more one has actualized, the more he is capable of doing, or in other words, the greater is his potential.  Accordingly, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits explains that, “the full worth of reality is found not in its actual, but in its potential value” (God, Man and History, p.84).

Man fulfills purpose by climbing a ladder wherein each new rung of potential is reached only by having actualized the potential of the previous rung.  The ladder, with its base on the ground and its top in the sky, represents the means for man’s self-actualization, with the ever distant goal of reaching God whose name – “I will be that which I will be” – is infinite potential.

We can now return to our questions regarding the birthing mother.  As mentioned at the outset, the most fundamental way man actualizes potential is through bearing children.  When a woman conceives and carries a child within her womb, she raises herself in potential since she has actualized her own potential and is now carrying another being full of creative potential.  In so doing, the woman has raised herself a bit closer to the infinite potential that is God.

When the pregnant mother delivers the child, she delivers the child’s own inherent creative potential and thus, correspondingly, descends from the level of potential she had heretofore possessed.  Of course she has now actualized her own potential for creating, and, as such, is at a higher level than before having borne a child; nevertheless, upon parting with the being within her, she has parted with the potential that being represented.  And if potential is equated with godliness, holiness, and purity, then a descent in potential represents a distancing from these concepts, otherwise known as tumah.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, based on the Ohr HaHayim, explains that now, “we can understand why the period of tum’ah should be twice as long for the birth of a girl as for the birth of a boy. For if the birth of a child, a human being, is a high form of creativity which bestows kedushah [holiness] upon the mother, and an equivalent degree of tum’ah when the act of childbirth has been accomplished, then the birth of a girl calls for twice the length of the period of impurity; for the female of the species, unlike the male, possesses, in turn, the potential for bearing yet another generation and repeating this sublime act of creativity. To give birth to one who in turn can give birth, to create one who will later create, is to achieve double the holiness of bearing a human being who cannot perform this act within himself; and therefore the period of tum’ah is twice as long.”

The notion that a descent in potential is indicative of a descent in holiness also explains why the new mother must bring a sin-offering (hatat) when clearly she committed no sin.  Sin, by definition an act against God’s will, is something that distances one from God.  When done inadvertently, atonement is made by bringing a sin-offering.  The sin-offering, however, is not brought to make amends for the sin per se but to close the distance caused by the sin.  Similarly, a descent in creative potential, while not a sin, does cause a distancing from God.  To close the gap, as it were, the new mother is availed of the atonement of the hatat.  In consonance, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman explains the term hatat comes from the word le-hatei – to purify (The Temple, p.120).

Finally, in addition to the hatat, the mother brings a burnt-offering (olah).  “The word olah means ‘one that rises,’ meaning, within the sacral context, toward God above” (Rabbi Joshua Berman, The Temple, p.123).  Might not this sacrifice represent that the new mother, though having descended in potential upon delivery of the new life from her womb, actually ascended from her station prior to having conceived?  Tellingly, Rabbeinu Bechayei notes that this is the only instance in the entire sacrificial order that the olah precedes the hatat.  Might not this unique ordering be indicative of the new mother’s ascent (olah) in potential before her descent (hatat)?

Be that as it may, the case of the birthing mother provides an evocative example of the power of potential.  Let us look to the creative potential in our physiology, however, not as a culmination, but only as a reflection of our profound potential to bring to fruition our own “noble personality”.

If we but look beyond ourselves – the sky’s the limit.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at