April 23, 2020


4.24.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

Every week when I begin learning the weekly Torah portion, it typically doesn’t take long before my attention is pulled to a specific verse or word.  This week, the second verse hit me like a ton of bricks:  אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears…(Leviticus 12:1-2).

My wife is nine months pregnant and she’s due this week with our second child.  There is a good chance that by the time many of you are reading this, our child will already have been welcomed into a world that, over the last two months, has been flipped upside down.

We are having a baby and it’s coming now!  Are we ready?  Will it be healthy?  How will this baby be welcomed into our community?  Into the world?  What will my wife’s health be like after this?  My mind races with questions that have no answer – only conjecture and speculation – that lure me away from the present moment and down a rabbit hole that has no end.

And I must bind myself to the here and now by diving back into the text, which goes on to specify the different ritual requirements depending if the baby is a male, or female:

For a male – the mother is deemed tameh or “ritually impure/unclean” for seven days.  On the eighth day, the boy is to be circumcised and an additional thirty-three days of less restrictive impurity follow for the mother; a total of forty days where she is unable to present herself to the sanctuary.

For a female – fourteen days of a more restrictive impurity, no bris, and another sixty-six days of impurity for the mother, totaling eighty days (Leviticus 12:2-5).

Upon the completion of her time of solitude, the mother is then required to bring two animal sacrifices – a burnt offering and a purification offering – which deem her suitable to rejoin the community and to come into contact with sacred objects.

Okay, it’s great that we’re not practicing female circumcision, but why is the mother’s time of impurity doubled for a daughter?

Rabbi Shai Held explains that giving birth to a daughter means giving life to someone who, in the future, also may have to navigate the fraught boundary between life and death. Hence the doubling of the period of ritual impurity when a girl is born.

But doesn’t this seem archaic?  Why would a mother, who after enduring the physical difficulty of pregnancy and labor and has just brought forth new life, need to be isolated?

Baruch Levine writes in the JPS Torah Commentary of Leviticus:

Although the new mother was a source of joy to the community, and her new child a blessing, she generated anxiety – as did all aspects of fertility and reproduction in ancient society.  The childbearing mother was particularly vulnerable, and her child was in danger too, since infant mortality was widespread in premodern societies.  By declaring the new mother impure, susceptible, the community sought to protect and shelter her.

Okay, so it was for her protection.  To give her space and time to heal after this near-death and life-creating experience.  And if I told my wife that she would need to practice this in addition to socially distancing, I would be the one having the near-death experience.

What I believe the text is alluding to is so much more than days of impurity and the requirements for return: I keep thinking of the difference in the life that this baby will have, which depends so drastically on the presence or absence of one chromosome.  The difference – male or female – correlates to opportunity.  Expectations of how to behave in society.  It corresponds to safety and security and gender roles.  It’s navigating the complexities of childbearing vs. choosing a career.

So much of this child’s life will depend on whether it’s a boy or a girl, or neither for that matter.

And despite all the modern advances that would allow us to know the baby’s birth gender ahead of time, my wife and I chose to wait.  We wanted to experience, to recreate the ancient ritual of finding out at the moment of birth.

In my moments of fear, I find myself hoping for a girl so that we don’t have to do a brit milah via Zoom.  And the next minute, I recall the many times I have dehumanized women as “notches on my belt” or as mere objects to satisfy the lust and desires of my loneliness.  I find myself wanting to pray for a different outcome: that my child will not be born into this new reality we are all facing.  That somehow my prayers can magically make this suffering all disappear.

Again, the blessing of grounding, this time from the Talmud: In a discussion about what is considered an “ineffective prayer,” the rabbis caution against praying for different results that, during the course of a pregnancy, have already transpired:

As it was taught: During the first three days [after intercourse], one should pray/request that [the seed] not putrefy, [that it will fertilize the egg and develop into a fetus].  From the third day until the fortieth, one should pray that it will be male.  From the fortieth day until three months, one should pray that it will not be [deformed, in the shape of a] flat fish.  From the third month until the sixth, one should pray that it will not be stillborn.  And from the sixth month until the ninth, one should ask for mercy that it will be emerge b’shalom (in peace/completion) (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 60a).

And, indeed, when my wife was pregnant with our son, Benjamin, my spiritual practice was to pray: “I ask for rahamim (mercy) that it emerges in shalom (peace, wholeness).”

How does this all relate to recovery?

Powerlessness.  Despite wanting to be able to know and control the outcome and the circumstances around my son’s or daughter’s birth and subsequent life, I recognize I am limited to influence, not control.  There is so much uncertainty in life, and I have to let go of my desire to play god.  I must surrender and allow myself “to be confronted and defeated by a higher truth” – that God, nature, modern medicine, and my wife’s miraculous body are the guiding forces.

My job is to alleviate and manage my own fears and to pray that this child emerges complete, in health, and in peace.  My job is to recall all the blessings of being a parent, especially when it is hard.  My job is to remember that my kids are my greatest teachers.

And then to do the next right thing – change the diapers.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Joseph Shamash