Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is a methodical and orderly book. It is ideologically subtle, namely, one needs to read between the lines to discover the ideas behind its legal and ritual construction. Parshat Tazria is no exception to this description. It opens dealing with the ritual requirements of human birth, the requisite days of impurity, the necessary sacrifices and the return to ritual purity: “A woman when she gives seed…” (Leviticus 12) These laws of childbirth follow immediately after the laws governing which animals are ritually fit for consumption and those which are prohibited. (See Leviticus 11)
The opening midrash of Vayikra Rabbah (3rd-4th century Eretz Yisrael) for Parshat Tazria was inspired by this juxtaposition to make a significant religious statement about the nature and significance of human existence. The midrash takes the form of a peticha, a midrash on the parsha which focuses on a verse from elsewhere in the Tanakh (Bible) to reach the opening verse(s) of the parasha at the end of the midrash. In this midrash, the focus is on a verse from Psalms (139:5): “From behind and in front You (God) shaped me”. Here are some examples of ideas from the end of the midrash:
Said Rabbi Yishmael b’Rabbi Tanchum: “Behind” on all creation, (namely, the last of all creations); “before” (first) in all punishments. If he merits, they say of him that he is the first of all of creation; if not, they say of him that the mosquito preceded him, they worm preceded him. Said Rabbi Yochanan: Even man’s praise only comes last, as it says [Psalms 148:110]: “Beasts and all cattle creeping things and flying fowl”. And afterwards, [Psalms 148:11]: “Kings of the earth and all peoples.” Said Rabbi Simlai: “Just like man’s formation was after beast, cattle, and bird, so too his laws are after beast, cattle, and bird, and that’s what is written, “This is the law of cattle” [Leviticus 11:46], and afterwards, “A woman when she gives seed…” (Leviticus Rabbah 14:1, Margulies ed. pp. 298-9)
The interpretations expressed here come to remind us that human dignity is dependent on how we as human beings act. Human beings have a sentient capacity which makes them responsible for their actions in a way that is different from other worldly creatures. Being created last can either put you at the top of the totem pole or make you look like an afterthought. The sages in this midrash clearly put that choice in our hands.