LIKE GOD (TAZRIA)
When a woman carries a grain of rice
invisible inside her rounded belly
when she has to pee every half hour
though her bladder isn't under pressure yet
when her breasts grow tender to the touch
and exhaustion wipes her across the floor
when baggy shirts become insufficient
and strangers start darting glances
when people want to rub her belly
as though she were a good-luck Buddha
when her back aches, when what's inside
shifts, kicks her in the ribs, somersaults
when she goes on long walks, eats spicy food
has vigorous sex at 39 weeks, anything
to move them through the narrow place
into whatever liberation is coming
when a woman makes it through labor
(however many hours, drugs, incisions)
when a woman gives birth to an infant --
even the air around her crackles
euphoria and overwhelm and tears
settle in for a month, maybe two
of blood and bodily fluids, tiny fingernails
and eyelashes, everything she thought she knew
changed by the enormity of being like God
and shaping new life in her compassionate womb.
This week's Torah portion, Tazria, begins with verses about how when a woman bears a male infant she will be tamei for a week and will remain in a state of "blood purification" for 33 days. (The meaning of that phrase, says the JPS Torah Commentary, is unclear.) If the baby is a girl, the period of tum'ah and the period of blood purification are each twice as long. "She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the Temple sanctuary until her period of purification is completed."
This is a challenging passage for many women I know. (Rabbi Deborah Zecher's d'var Torah for this portion offers insights both into its challenges and into how she reconciles herself with the text.) Torah's treatment of women and our bodies is not always what contemporary women might wish for, and to many, this passage feels foreign and uncomfortable at best, especially when tamei is translated as "unclean" or "impure."
When I sat down to write this year's Torah poem for this parsha, I wanted to honor the reality that a woman who gives birth is at the end of one story (the story of the pregnancy and all of its mysterious impacts on her body) and the beginning of another (the story of motherhood, whether new or renewed.) I understand tum'ah as a kind of spiritual and emotional charge built up by contact with life and death. In that context, I can buy that a woman who has given birth comes out of the experience changed, at least for a while.
The Hebrew word for womb is רחם / rechem; the Hebrew word for compassionate is רחמן / rachaman. Every time we call God Ha-Rachaman, "The Compassionate One," we're also subtly hinting at the existence of God's womb. (Kind of brain-breaking if one presumes that the word "God" is masculine, isn't it?) The ability to nurture new life in the womb and then bring it forth into the world is something women have in common with God -- at least on a metaphorical level. For me, thinking of the nameless new mother at the beginning of this Torah portion as being "like God" removes some of the sting this Torah portion might otherwise hold.
Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.