One winter night some years ago I crossed the parking lot of Providence Hospital in Southfield, MI. Looking up, I saw a great cloud of steam rising from the heat grates, dramatically lit by floodlights mounted on the hospital roof. This dynamic swirling above the hospital, combined perhaps with the heaviness I felt in visiting a dying patient, mixed also with the happy memory that my own son had recently been born in this very building, took me out of ordinary consciousness. I felt then that I was visiting not just a hospital but a transit hub, with souls entering and exiting the world, as some gave birth while others died within the walls of the building. The proximity of endings and beginnings all under one roof made me recall Jacob’s vision of the angels ascending and descending, and his statement upon awakening, “how awesome is this place; it is none other than a house of God and a portal to heaven.”
Birth and death frequently keep company, whether in human lives or in the broader biosphere that surrounds us. William Carlos Williams, a poet and a pediatrician, opens Poem I of “Spring and All,” “By the road to the contagious hospital.” This morbid image is initially reinforced by the muddy and apparently dead landscape that surrounds the building, yet this is a vernal poem about rebirth. “Small trees with dead, brown leaves under them” come back to life. “They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter.” Slowly, fresh growth quickens and takes definition. “But now the stark dignity of entrance—Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken.”
Each year we read Parashat Tazria (“She shall give birth”) in the spring, just as the natural world slowly shifts from brown to green, and before Pesah, when the people of Israel emerge from the confined space of Mitzrayim, through the birth canal of the Red Sea, and out into a world of adventure and growth. We have established an extended simile—just as the natural world experiences near-death followed by new life, so too does the individual person experience illness and healing, confinement and birth; and then again, so does the people of Israel grope back from dark days of oppression to become free and prosperous again. But is this simile true? Do humans regenerate as predictably as plants? Are birth and death not permanent end points of a human life? Ecclesiastes seems to think so. He writes, “a generation departs, and a generation arrives; but the land stands forever.” When a person becomes rooted in the land, do they “grip down and begin to awaken,” or simply cease to be? The simple reading of Ecclesiastes offers little hope of human rebirth.
In Midrash Sifre Devarim (Ekev #47), our Sages offer a different interpretation of Ecclesiastes. They argue (with circular logic) that, “if the earth, which was made only for human glory, stands forever, how much more so will Israel live forever?” R. Yehoshua b. Korha offers a yet more extreme revision, reversing the verse so that the earth may come and go, but a generation that repents will stand forever (but where will they stand?). Either way, the Sages of Israel could not abide the grim conviction of Ecclesiastes that human life, like breath, is quickly concluded, with no hint of afterlife to soften its finality.
The mystery of what comes after will confound us all until our own moment of departure arrives, so it seems prudent to focus more on what we can see: the continuity of generations, as the physical and cultural inheritance of parents is bequeathed to children. Individuals may not live forever, but the family of Israel carries on, despite all of our cataclysmic setbacks, for millennium after millennium. We may enter the world, “naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter,” but there is also a “dignity of entrance,” and the hope that once again, the people of Israel will take root in new land, “grip down and begin to awaken.”
Our portion begins with a woman at childbirth. Jacob Milgrom explains (in The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16) that the word tazria refers not to conception but to delivery. It is not just that the woman is impregnated (“seeded”), since our ancestors believed that the woman’s seed was in her blood, which combined with the man’s semen to make a child. Milgrom understands the extended period of impurity after the birth of a girl by comparing the Torah’s code to that of neighboring cultures, especially to the Hittites who likewise required a longer period of confinement after the birth of a girl. We are quick to detect signs here of misogyny, but I am not sure that this is the case. Being in a state of ritual impurity relieved the mother of some domestic and public obligations, like an ancient form of maternity leave. The Sages explained that her period of separation was truncated for a boy so that the mother could be present for his brit milah, lest she feel isolated and sad as the family gathered to celebrate the bris. Indeed, in the biblical text the mother is not only an object of study but also an actor in her own drama. She is the one to produce the child, and she is the one who journeys to the sanctuary to become ritually pure once again.
The purpose of this passage is not, therefore, to stigmatize the new mother, but to give her time to heal before resuming public life. This sensitivity also typifies the portion’s approach to tzara’at, the Torah’s unknown disease of skin, hair, clothing and homes. For people, at least, the disease led to a period of quarantine punctuated by priestly visits to relieve the patient’s isolation and prepare for their reintegration into society. The Etz Hayim commentary (652) notes, “…the experience of being cared for by the most prestigious person in the community must have helped generate healing powers in the sick person.”
We need the messy messages of Tazria to startle us from a complacent sense of wellness, and make us aware of the contingency of our health and of life itself. As the natural world experiences rebirth, we too may revive flagging spirits by giving comfort and strength to one another. Like the ancient priests, we can bring those who are ill and excluded the gifts of presence, skill, compassion, and welcome. In this way our communities can become integrated, and the people of Israel may once again be whole.
ויקרא פרק יב, ב דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא:
בראשית פרק כח, יז וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם:
קהלת פרק א, ד דּוֹר הֹלֵךְ וְדוֹר בָּא וְהָאָרֶץ לְעוֹלָם עֹמָדֶת:
ספרי דברים פרשת עקב פיסקא מז ד“ה דבר אחר דבר אחר כימי השמים על הארץ, שיהו חיים וקיימים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים וכן הוא אומר +ישעיה סו כב+ כי כאשר השמים החדשים וגו‘ והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה שמים וארץ שלא נבראו אלא לכבודם של ישראל חיים וקיימים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים קל וחומר לצדיקים שבעבורם נברא העולם, רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר הרי הוא אומר +ישעיה סה כב+ כי כימי העץ ימי עמי ואין עץ אלא תורה שנאמר +משלי ג יח+ עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה התורה שלא נבראת אלא לכבודם של ישראל הרי היא קיימת לעולם ולעולמי עולמים קל וחומר לצדיקים שבעבורם נברא העולם. רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר הרי הוא אומר +קהלת א ד+ דור הולך ודור בא אל תהי קורא כאן אלא ארץ הולכת וארץ באת ודור לעולם עומד ולפי ששינו מעשיהם שינה המקום עליהם סידורו של עולם.