The Impurity of a Birthing Mother
Speak to Bnei Yisrael saying: If a woman conceives seed and bears a male child, she shall be ritually impure for seven days; as in the days of her menstrual weakness shall she be impure. And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Vayikra 12:2-3)
It is generally held that all of the types of ritual “impurity” (tum’a) enumerated in the Torah are related one way or another to death: animals embody and convey ritual impurity only when they are dead; a person enters a state of impurity upon coming into contact with a dead body or when stricken with tzara’at, which is considered a “partial death,” etc. The ritual impurity of a menstrual woman expresses the same concept: in general, menstrual blood is evidence of potential life that was not realized; it represents a possibility for new life which did not come about. Indeed, a woman who is pregnant is not ‘nidda’: during the pregnancy her vitality and energy are directed towards nurturing new life, and her powers of regeneration have not been “wasted,” as it were. Nidda (menstrual impurity), then, is likewise the expression of an encounter with potential life that was not realized. It is the absence of life – a shadow of death.
On the basis of this explanation, it is puzzling that a birthing mother is likewise ritually impure. If all impurity is related to death, then how is this state related to a woman who is in the process of creating new life? We may question further why the Torah compares the impurity of the birthing mother to the impurity of nidda – “as in the days of her menstrual weakness shall she be impure.” And a final question: why is circumcision mentioned in the context of these types of impurity? The commandment concerning circumcision is given to Avraham already in Sefer Bereishit; why is it mentioned again along with the impurity of nidda and of the birthing mother?
An interesting midrash on our parasha may hold the key to solving these difficulties:
A different explanation: “If a woman conceives seed” – This is as it is written, “I was brought about through sin” (Tehillim 51:7). Rabbi Acha said [in explanation of this verse from Tehillim]: Even the most righteous of people cannot be without some aspect of sin. [In this verse,] David said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world – did my father, Yishai, then mean for me to be born? His only concern [at my conception] was for his own pleasure! We know that this is the case, for after they fulfill their needs, he turns his head this way while she turns her head the other way… That is as it is written, “If a woman conceives seed and bears a son.” (Vayikra Rabba, 14)
In parashat Bereishit, prior to Adam’s sin, we read: “And they were both bare – Adam and his wife – and they were not ashamed.” It seems that prior to the sin, there was no need for the sexual drive. God commanded man, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and this command was sufficient to cause Adam to fulfill God’s will. There was no need for the “shame” that is associated with the process surrounding childbirth. In the wake of the sin, after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, man reached a state where God’s command was no longer sufficient motivation to cause him to do what was necessary in order to be fruitful. Therefore, in order to ensure that the world would continue to develop and grow, God imbued man with a sexual urge. Ever since then, man has relied on this urge to create new life. Without it, the Divine command may not have been sufficient.
We have to remember that this state of affairs is in fact a disgrace. The fact that man will not suffice with God’s command, but requires in addition a drive and lust in order to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” is reason for shame – as expressed by the midrash which puts this thought into the mouth of David. Every birth entails an element of sin, because the process involves some measure of physical lust rather than a pure desire to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful. Hence, every birth involves impurity. The element of sin that is inseparably bound up with the creation of new life, is what causes a woman to become ritually impure during the birth process.
There is a famous midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria, 7) that records an exchange between Rabbi Akiva and the wicked Turnus Rufus:
The wicked Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: Whose actions are better, those of God or those of man?
He answered him, Man’s actions are better.
The wicked Turnus Rufus asked him, Can you then create anything like the heavens and the earth?
Rabbi Akiva answered, Don’t talk about things that are above human capacity, over which we have no control. Let us rather discuss things that concern human beings.
He said to him, Why do you [Jews] practice circumcision?
He answered him, I knew that that was what you were going to say, and that is why I said in the beginning that man’s actions are better than those of God. Bring me sheaves of wheat and cakes… These are the work of God, while these are the work of man – are these [latter] not better?”
This midrash illustrates the concept that God entrusts us with the responsibility of perfecting the world. There are some schools of thought – even today – that glorify nature. They believe that what is natural is perfect. The Jewish view, however, is that nature needs perfecting. There are some educational approaches that are based on the idea of leaving the child’s nature intact. It is not difficult to look around and see the results. Raw nature is not always good; it often needs some work. Therefore it is specifically in the context of the Torah’s discussion of the birthing mother and her ritual impurity, which comes about as a result of the natural drives and urges that exist in man, that the Torah reminds us of the way to correct this “imperfection” – through circumcision. Through circumcision we correct the natural drives that exist within us and perfect the inherent deficiency that has existed in the world since the sin of Adam. The Torah is thereby teaching us that the fact that the sexual urge is natural does not mean that it is inherently a positive force. It entails impurity and must be corrected through circumcision.
I wish to add a final point. We have seen that the impurity of nidda arises as the result of potential life that is not realized. We must keep this lesson in mind: a person who fails to realize his inborn potential, is sinning and bringing impurity upon himself. A person must not only distance himself from sin, but also use all the powers that exist within him to perfect his personality and his character. A person who fails to strive and work to perfect himself is committing a sin.
This would seem to apply in particular to those of us who dwell in the beit midrash and occupy ourselves with Torah. We are responsible for maximizing our potential. I am already old, but you are still young. You must work to improve yourselves and maximize your strengths, good traits, and abilities. This is not a supererogatory task, something that is praiseworthy but not mandatory; rather, it is a task that is incumbent upon each and every one of us. Anyone who neglects it is “impure,” “as in the days of menstrual weakness.”
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Tazria 5767 .)