Most misunderstood Torah portion award goes to…

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.
Shabbat Shalom.




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8 Responses to Most misunderstood Torah portion award goes to…

  1. neskama says:

    Thanks again Michal….I remember that it was either Rabbi Zack or Rabbi Dardik to suggested to me that tahara and tamei represent the potential for life or the absence of that potential…always liked that. Also, Rav Weinreb (from OU) made a suggestion by the Kotzker Rebbe that once Hashem separates from the woman after the birth of a child, there is a great darkness…right here in this moment of joy. I am curious…what do you make of that word, darkness….from such a high to that post partem low….or, the child has now been birthed and is, therefore, already on its’ way to its’ demise.
    just thoughts….shabbat shalom.

    You know you’re a redneck if your home has wheels and your car doesn’t….Jeff FoxworthyIf there is a Divine Plan i am simply playing my part, not even knowing what it is…..Anon
    neska נסקה

    Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2014 14:13:44 +0000

    • there is no high without a low. it’s like surfing. we cant be on top of the waves all the time. the higher the high, the lower the low. it sucks in the lows, but what are the options? we cant surf on flat (then again, some of us cant surf at all, so just a metaphor!)

  2. ethannehemia says:

    Michal this is lovely!
    Just for some pilpul- my initial reading was that ‘tazria’ is a second-person verb, addressing the “*Sons* of Israel”, thus making the woman the passive object of the seeding. Do you know other cases phrased as: ” subject/object ki verb?”

    Also, noticed that there is variation in reading this parshas between a 12 moon year and a 13 moon year (Shana ‘meuberet’…. A fetusized year if you’d like.) Coincidence? Probably.

    Love the gmara from Brachot, first time I see it:
    1. Looks like the biblical source of the famous mother-son, father-daughter bonds?
    2. Well, assuming that the woman does not need to have an orgasm to conceive (another curse the gender picked up along the way?), and there are as many boys as girls born, you’re giving an awful lot of credit to Jewish menschs here!

    Shabbat Shal-OM 🙂

    • re pilpul (you’re having too much indian spicy food?), tazri’a – like all hebrew verbs in future tense – can be second person male or 3rd person female (ata telech; hee telech-). since it opens with isha (woman) ki… – I think it’s safe to think it’s about the woman.
      re the calendar, a few parashot are doubled together on a leap (“pregnant”) year and this is not the only one. the reason mainly has to do with “bringing” pesach back to the right place and how we adjust that. not sure if tazri’a was singled out due to its topic, but -as I often say, when you’ve been around for 4000 years, lots can happen.
      re biblical families, it’s a “yes and”. we see a special bond between Rebecca and Jacob, but also between Isaac and Esau, so it’s not a ‘one size fits all’.
      re last comment, I’m just quoting a piece of talmud so it’s the rabbis who give credit – or perhaps they want to make sure that the men attend to their women’s needs (or indeed, maybe not need but stam pleasure) and that is their (the rabbis) way of doing so?!
      I wont get into “courses the gender picked up” because I dont believe in that. men have “curses” just the same, if that’s how we want to think about it. i dont. i see a very delicate balance and perhaps more on that issue another time.
      shavua tov!

      • ethannehemia says:

        Told to the sons of Israel: “women you shall tazria” was my thought, are there no cases is the bible when the object comes before the subject?
        Only example that comes to my mind is “mot yumat”=death he shall die. Assuming mot is the noun of death and not a rare conjugation of the verb. Can you think of any? Or other uses of ” Ki?

        Wasn’t excluding one gender regarding the curses.
        And not even viewing them as curses. But when we ask why a woman gives birth in pain, man needs to work to nourish (beyond the physical reasons of baby coming through small hole and wheat requiring process) etc, like the kid who asks ‘why’ after ‘why- I think that if one believes in the creator, these ‘curses’ give an interesting perspective.
        As I don’t know what I believe in, would love to hear about you. Another time 🙂

      • there are a lot of ki… also adam ki… ish ki… they all relate back to the opening guf, sorry. it does inform all around about hat’s to be done, so in that sense: children of Israel, hen the woman tazria, this is what needs to be done, but it’s still the woman who does the tazria. dont have a way around it.
        but I have a fat concordance and once you land from your yogi travels, you’re welcome to explore further.
        and no curses!!

  3. mmasoner says:

    todah rabah michal! i found this drash very interesting! i think i will use it to inspire our second seder. we are having friends over, and we’re all suffering from emptiness and the exodus of our children out into the world. I think you have given me a context for the discussions we’ve been having! thank you so much michal!

    Sent from my iPhone


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