The Rabbi's Study

99 Ways to Die

Being in physical form means that we are always on the boundary between life and death. There are moments in which this reality is not in our conscious awareness, and then there are moments in which it is very present and real.

The system of sacrifices is a practical meditation on precisely this tightrope that we walk – in order to bring a sacrifice, one must be in a state of ritual purity; one comes into a state of ritual impurity because of various degrees of contact with the lost potential of life, or the actual presence of death. And so it is a beautiful manifestation of this dynamic tension that Parashat Tazria delves directly into that relationship.

The Torah says:

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying. Speak to the Children of Yisrael saying: When a woman produces-seed and has borne a male; she is tamei’ah (ritually-impure) seven days, like the days of the infirmity of her separation she is tamei’ah. On the eighth day: the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised. For thirty-three days she sits in a state of blood tahorah (ritually-pure); any kodesh-item (ritually designated) she is not to touch and into the mikdash she is not to come until fulfilling the days of her tahorah. If she bore a female, she is tamei’ah two-weeks like her separation; sixty-six days she sits in a state of blood tahorah. In fulfilling the days of her tahorah, for a son or for a daughter, she brings a yearling lamb for an olah-offering, a dove or a pigeon for a hattat-offering; to the opening of the ohel mo’ed to the priest. He will offer it before Hashem and atone for her she will be tahor from the source of her blood; this is the torah of giving-birth to a male or a female. If her hand cannot find sufficient for a sheep she should take two pigeons or two doves, one for the olah-offering and one for the hattat-offering; and the priest will atone for her and she will become tahorah.

We’re not going to address the difference between birthing a girl and birthing a boy, and based on the lack of commentary on the matter it seems that the commentators also did not have a desire to address it. Perhaps another year.

A hattat-offering is something which is brought to sacrifice when someone has performed a mis-step. So why does a postpartum mother need to bring a hattat-offering? What was her mis-step be?

One of my favorite ritual moments in the year is the maariv prayer service following Yom Kippur. We’ve just spent 25 hours fasting, and a good number of those hours praying and meditating on our own forgiveness. The shofar is blown one last time, and we enter back into weekday, and the first thing we do is pray a weekday service. Within minutes of that service we state: “forgive us, our father, for we have mis-stepped; absolve us, our sovereign, for we have backpedaled…” Wait, what?! We literally just received atonement! What could we have done? Well, for one thing, you could think, “for what could I possibly have to seek forgiveness?” You could think, “wow, I’m really hungry, can’t I take care of my physical needs before I tend to my spiritual needs?” And any number of other thoughts and statements. The dynamic tension is always present, and it is very real.

In this spirit, the Midrash teaches on the need of the mother to bring a hattat-offering:

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai’s students asked him: Why does the Torah say that a woman who gives birth brings an offering? He said to them: In that moment that she experiences birth pangs and has intense contractions, she might make an oath that she will never be intimate with her husband again, but when the pain passes she will regret it.

In moments in which we suffer, we make statements, promises, or have thoughts that are a product of the intensity of the moment, but does not necessarily reflect the macro-truth of the greater context of our life – when we hurt, either emotionally or physically, we say things we do not really mean.

Another Midrash frames it similarly:

Why does she bring an offering? Our Rabbis said: She screams one hundred times in a single moment while she sits on the birthing stool – ninety-nine for death and one for life. When the suffering impacts her, she vows to never be intimate with her husband again, therefore she brings an offering.

In the moment of giving life, she is the physical embodiment of the dynamic tension between life and death. The Torah is offering us the awareness that expressing deep fear and uncertainty when confronted with that dynamic tension is a natural and expected part of life. The goal is not to avoid it, rather it is to be aware of it. The awareness does not seek to destroy the impulse, rather to learn from it.

We will always cry out a hundred times, but will we allow ourselves the space to cry out in joy and hope when given the opportunity to live?

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