Tazria must win the ‘most misunderstood Torah portion’ prize. The word itself is untranslatable, and it follows by laws of “purity” and “impurity”, two more concepts we don’t understand. Then it goes into sacrifices that the child-bearing mother must bring, and it tells us the waiting period for brining those is different if she had a baby boy or girl. By then we close the book tightly. That’s it! I’m done! I knew it! Torah is prejudice against women! Ancient people had issues! We are so more advanced! Moving on…
It’s tempting to use the “time” now and look into other issues: oh my, we’re nearing Pesach; let’s talk about that… but I couldn’t budge from the woman at the opening of Tazria. What in the world is “tazria”? “The opening verse is: isha ki tazria, meaning, when a woman… ?? The New International Version: “becomes pregnant”; hebcal and Chabbad websites: “conceived”; KJV (King James Version): “conceived seed” and I appreciate the honest struggle in the latter.
Tazria comes from zera, seed, and it is an active form of the verb (conjugated in hif’eel, if you care for Hebrew grammar). The woman here doesn’t “become pregnant” and she’s isn’t conceived which are passive as if things happen to her by ‘getting pregnant’. Perhaps the closest use of that verb is in Genesis 1:11-12 when on the 3rd day of creation G-d said: “Let the earth put forth herb yielding seed… (mazria zera)”, and we picture fruitful plants that sprout on and on. Further, to seed is an action we often think of as masculine: a man may “seed”, but a woman?
The rabbis had fun with it. They also brought into the conversation Jacob and Leah. It says about them:
“אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי לֵאָה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב בְּפַדַּן אֲרָם, וְאֵת דִּינָה בִתּוֹ” – These are the sons of Leah whom she bore to Jacob… and Dina, his daughter”(Genesis 46:15).
In the Talmud, Brachot 60 the sages said: “If a woman seeds first, she bares a son” – and therefore, if a man seeds first, they have a daughter. Thus they connected the gender of the baby to who had orgasm first, (and I know people that swear by this “recipe” :). There are later discussions whether it’s true or not, and if not, what is the meaning of this gmara. Regardless, I like it because it implies the Talmud – as our Torah portion – thinks that the woman is not just something to be acted on; she “seeds”!
We then must touch on “purity and impurity”, also best left in Hebrew: tahor & ta-me. We cab bring the voices of Rabbi Se’adya Gaon who lived in the 10th century who says (roughly translated) that these stages bring a person close to grappling with their own limitations and temporary nature. To be tame met – impure by contact with a dead, is the most common, and it is awe instilling, but then, what about childbirth? Rabbi Beni Lau, nephew of Israel’s past chief rabbi, brings the words of midrash rabba comparing the woman to a home:
רבי אליעזר אומר: כשם שיש דלתות לבית, כך יש דלתות לאשה,
זהו שכתוב: “כי לא סגר דלתי בטני” (איוב ג).
רבי יהושע אומר: כשם שיש מפתחות לבית, כך לאשה ,
זהו שכתוב: “וישמע אליה אלוהים ויפתח את רחמה” (בראשית ל).
רבי עקיבא אומר: כשם שיש צירים לבית, כך יש צירים לאשה ,
זהו שכתוב: “ותכרע ותלד כי נהפכו עליה ציריה” (שמואל א’, ד’).
Like a home, she has doors, Rabbi Eliezer plays on a verse from Job; she has openings – and the word for open shares its root with “keys”(petach – mafte’ach),s ays Rabbi Yehoshu’a, and she even has “hinges” like a house, says Rabbi Akiva, because in Hebrew, hinges and labor pains is the same word (tzirim).
What does it mean? It means that childbirth is equated with a person leaving home. The processes described in this portion acknowledge that while this is a very happy occasion, it is accompanied with incredibly strong emotions as the fullness turns to emptiness; the wholeness – to a separation. There is a danger that the for the woman who has been such an integral partner in G-d’s creation in the highest sense possible, this will be accompanied by further feelings of separation, not just from her baby but from the divine and hence the need to create opportunities to come back and draw near via the korban (sacrifice, from karov, to approach, get close).
The same journey happens to us every spring: after being indoors, we venture outside again; it happens to us with Passover and any personal exodus we might experience. The Torah nods at us as if saying, it’s ok to be apprehensive; it’s ok to feel all the complicated feelings you have; keep going.