Revisiting Tazria-Metzorah, after death and after birth
April 23, 2012
This week we're reading Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) -- a double Torah portion chock-full of birth, blood, tum'ah and taharah, leprosy and eruptive afflictions, nocturnal emissions, and purification rituals. This stuff is, I suspect, what makes many moderns squeamish about Leviticus. It's easier to relate to the family stories of Genesis, the stirring freedom motif of Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of Numbers and the lofty sermons of Deuteronomy...but how can these fiddly details of purification rituals no one's practiced in two thousand years really speak to us as part of our holy text?
And to be fair, some years, I've really struggled with these portions of Torah myself. Parashat Tazria begins with injunctions about how when a woman gives birth, she becomes tamei for a certain period of time. (That word is often translated as "impure;" I've written before about how and why I dislike that translation -- I think it has connotations, to the modern ear, which the original Hebrew doesn't necessarily intend.) But now that I have my own experience of giving birth to a child, I find that I can relate to these verses in a different way.
My memories of labor are distant and hazy now. (I know I'm still grateful to our doula, to the nurses, to my terrific OB, and to the anesthesiologist who administered the epidural, may there be a blessing on his house.) But I remember feeling, as Drew emerged from my body, that I was touching something deep and ineffable. It was so intense that I had to close my eyes. I remember the total astonishment of holding our son for the first time, pressed to my chest, a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer draped over both of us. Realizing that I had changed, as if by magic, into someone new.
When I read the Torah verses here about how a woman is tamei for 33 or for 66 days after birth, I think of spending my first two months of motherhood swimming against the current of postpartum depression; a different kind of tum'ah which nonetheless separated me from my community. Let me be clear -- I'm not saying that that's what the Torah verses are about, per se. And I know that every woman's experience is different. But I suspect that many women experience the first one or two months of motherhood as a different time, an overwhelming time, a time which is set apart from ordinary life.
Labor and birth were a one-time thing for me. But I am blessed now to be able to minister to people through the journey of sickness and death and burial -- and I know that every time I touch death in these ways, I come away feeling changed. Changed and charged. Electrified, almost, as though I had shed everything extraneous in myself and my life in order to go somewhere very deep. I think that deep place is the same place I touched when I closed my eyes and Drew was born. And I know that every time I go there, it takes a little while for the experience to "wear off," as it were.
When I emerge back into ordinary life, when the spiritual tingliness wears off, I'm often exhausted...but deeply grateful to have touched those depths. That's how I understand tum'ah now. Tum'ah is the stuff of blood and birth and death and ineffability. Most of us don't live our lives in constant awareness of our blood and our mortality and our deep mystical connection with something Beyond, something from which we emerge when we are born and to which we return when we are die. But birth and death, blood and semen and mysterious bodily suppurations are part of this human life. Leviticus offers us one very old framework for understanding these things and how they impact us.
As we immerse in the waters of this week's Torah portion, a question to ponder: when do you feel most connected with your body, with life and death, with God?
For those who are interested, here are the posts I've made about this parsha in previous years:
2006: Meeting impurity, and being changed (originally published at Radical Torah.)
2007: Health -- and connection with God (originally published at Radical Torah.)
2008: Clean [Torah poem for Tazria] and On your house [Torah poem for Metzorah]
2009: Like God [Torah poem] -- also available in print as part of 70 faces