Parashat Tazria-Metzora
April 17, 2021 | 5 Iyar 5781
Torah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33; Triennial 13:40-14:32
Haftorah: II Kings 7:3-20
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on Parashat Shemini by Ilana Kurshan called "When We Talk About Birth, We Need To Talk About Death". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Just Return to Normal?". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Getting Out of the Gate" in the Haftorah.
When We Talk About Birth, We Need To Talk About Death
Ilana Kurshan

The Torah’s discussion of purity and impurity in parshiot Tazria and Metzora begins, somewhat surprisingly, with the laws governing a woman who has just given birth. Unlike some of the other conditions discussed in these parshiot—such as irregular emissions from the genitals, or the scaly skin disease commonly translated as leprosy—childbirth is a natural process and generally a welcome one. And yet the Torah stipulates that after giving birth, a woman becomes impure. Even following her period of impurity, she must wait several weeks before coming into contact with sacred items or entering the Temple precincts. In the biblical and rabbinic worlds, impurity was associated with death – the highest form of impurity is a dead body. The laws governing purification following childbirth in our parsha remind us that birth and death are intimately connected, and that even today, childbirth is as much about confronting our own mortality as it is about life.

The Talmudic discussion of childbirth reflects an awareness of the dangers inherent in giving birth and the precariousness of new life. The rabbis teach that it is permissible to desecrate Shabbat so as to assist a woman in labor – if the laboring woman demands light, for instance, it is permitted to turn on a light for her on Shabbat even if she is blind and merely wants the light for the sake of those in the room with her (Shabbat 128b). The rabbis were aware that a woman giving birth is in touch with something very primal and elemental – they note that there are three sounds that resonate from one end of the earth to the other, one of which is the howl of a woman in labor (Yoma 20a). (One of the others is the sound of the soul leaving the body, which further serves to underscore the connection between birth and death.) The rabbis also note that a woman must bring a sin offering after giving birth because every woman, in the throes of labor, vows never to have relations with her husband again; since she will inevitably renege on this pledge, she must bring a sacrifice for vowing in vain (Niddah 31b). Childbirth was not just a time of danger and distress for the mother, but for the baby as well – the rabbis state that if a baby dies within thirty days of birth, it is not mourned, because it is considered a “nefel,” a stillbirth (Shabbat 135b). Although several modern halakhic decisors rule otherwise, in Talmudic times, it was only after thirty days had elapsed that a baby was considered fully viable (Niddah 44b).

Of course infant mortality rates are significantly lower in an age of medicalized births and increasingly sophisticated interventions. Yet even in modern times, a woman in labor pushes her body to extreme physical limits, and childbirth remains haunted by the specter of death. Women who are fortunate to have given birth to healthy babies are nonetheless likely to have encountered medical scares along the way. In so many births there is that moment of panic when the umbilical cord wraps around the baby’s neck, the fetal heartbeat plummets, the labor stops progressing. “When we talk about birth, we need to talk about death,” writes Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, in her recent book High Risk: A Doctor’s Notes on Pregnancy, Birth and the Unexpected. She describes the extent to which modern obstetric protocols are guided by an attempt to avoid stillbirth—this is the reason, for instance, that a woman who has passed her due date must receive regular fetal heartrate monitoring, and it is the reason that labor is often induced after 41 to 42 weeks of pregnancy. As Karkowsky and her colleagues are all too aware, childbirth remains a time of tremendous vulnerability for infant and mother alike. 

“There are three sins for which women die in childbirth,” the Mishnah states in a tractate Shabbat, and then proceeds to enumerate them: “Because they are not careful about the laws of menstrual purity, the laws of separating a portion of challah for the priests, and the lighting of Shabbat candles” (M. Shabbat 2:6). Each of these commandments is specifically associated with women – this is evident from a rabbinic midrash about Hannah, who in pleading with God for a child, insists that she deserves to become pregnant because she has been careful about these three mitzvot (Brachot 31b). The rabbis ask why it is specifically in childbirth when women are punished for these lapses, and respond that “when an ox falls, sharpen the knife” (Shabbat 32a). It is easiest to slaughter an ox that has already been weakened by a fall, and likewise, whatever punishment a person deserves is more likely to befall her when she is already vulnerable. A woman is most vulnerable while giving birth; a man, the Talmud goes on to relate, is most vulnerable while crossing a bridge. “Only a bridge and nothing else?” the rabbis ask, and then respond, “Anything that is like a bridge.”

Childbirth is like a bridge – a woman birthing a child is shepherding a soul across the bridge into this world, and tragically, the soul does not always make it safely. As Karkowsky writes, invoking similar imagery: “On the day of a stillbirth and the subsequent labor and delivery, I feel like a hooded Charon, a guide across the river of death… She [the birthing woman] will never be grateful for this trip; it is still the worst day of her life. But having it only be the worst day of her life is the sole gift that Charon can give.” Karkowsky’s book reinforces the message that in that moment of crossing the bridge into life, we must remember that the journey is always precarious. Or, as the rabbis put it in their discussion of childbirth and bridges, “A person should never stand in a place of danger and count on a miracle – lest a miracle not happen.”

This Mishnah about mothers dying in childbirth appears in tractate Shabbat in the context of the laws of candlelighting, and it is recited between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv as part of the traditional Friday night liturgy. This association with Shabbat hints at another aspect of the experience of childbirth. We observe Shabbat so as to imitate God; like the Creator, we engage in productive labor for six days and then rest on the seventh. Perhaps for the rabbis, it stood to reason that if a woman were not careful about emulating the Creator by keeping Shabbat, she would not merit to emulate the Creator by bringing life into the world. According to this understanding, childbirth is not just about crossing the bridge between life and death, but also about bridging the human and the divine by fulfilling our ultimate creative potential.

The ability to birth a child is a great privilege, but also a great risk. At a time when we can no longer undergo the Torah’s purification rituals or bring sacrifices to God, may an awareness of our vulnerability heighten our appreciation for the miracle of birth and the sanctity of all new life.
Just Return to Normal?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

The process of Tzaraat is lengthy. From diagnosis to being sent out of the camp until cured. Now we get to the other side – when the person can be declared free of Tzaraat.

Text: Vayikra 14:1-20

2This shall be the law of the Metzora in the day of his purifying: he shall be brought to the Kohen (priest). 3And the Kohen shall go out of the camp; and the Kohen shall look, and, behold, if the plague of Tzaraat be healed in the Metzora; 4then shall the Kohen command to take for him that is to be purified two living pure birds, and cedar-wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. … 7And he shall sprinkle upon him … and shall pronounce him pure, … 8And he that is to be purified shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and bathe himself in water, and he shall be pure; and after that he may come into the camp, but shall dwell outside his tent seven days…

  • Who determines that the time is ripe for return?
  • How do you think that the Metzora feels about returning to his old life?
  • Why do you think that there is such an extensive ceremony of return (lasting 8 days)? Why do we need transition ceremonies?
Commentary: Ramban Vayikra 14:2

This shall be the law of the Metzora in the day of his purifying: he shall be brought to the Kohen. …the day that he wishes to be pronounced pure, he should be brought to the Kohen, as he can never attain purity except by means of the Kohen's word… the Kohen shall go forth to the place of his [the Metzora’s] habitation out of the camp, but he [the Metzora] is not to come to the Kohen even though his Tzaraat has been healed. The interpretation in [midrash] Torat Kohanim is as follows: "And he shall be brought to the Kohen, this means that he is not to wait." If so, Scripture is stating that on the same day ... that he is cured from his Tzaraat, he is to be brought, even against his will, to the Kohen.

  • One might have thought that the Metzora would be quick to get himself declared pure and return to society, but the Midrash suggests that he might be reluctant to do so. What might be the reason(s) for this reluctance? What is the role of the Kohen here?
  • We have been through a year that has taken many out of their regular lives. When given the opportunity to return to “normal” – how eager and quick do you expect people to be at doing so? Why? How might we ease people’s way back?
Getting Out of the Gate
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

Our haftarah, 2 Kings 7, tells a story of reversals. Lepers, the outcasts of society, become heroes. The invincible Aramean army disappears overnight. The besieged starving city, Samaria, is overcome by a surplus of food. And just as it becomes clear that the horrors of war are over and all will be well, the aide of the king of Samaria is fittingly trampled to death by his own people.

We can juxtapose the death of the aide and the uplifting of the lepers. The story of the lepers begins with them sitting at the opening of the city gate, as the city starves. They turn to each other and say, ‘What are we doing? Sitting here until we die?’ They conclude that their current situation can’t get any worse, so they may as well turn themselves over to the Arameans, who do have food, with the hope that the Arameans will be kind to them. And if the Arameans kill them, well, they would have been dead from starvation anyway. This is an interesting decision. On the one hand, these lepers seem to be deserters, abandoning their people to cast their lot with the invaders. On the other hand, the lepers show remarkable courage and initiative. They are willing to change their mindsets totally when the situation calls for it. They are resilient and adaptable.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Elisha the prophet has made it known that the next day food will become abundant in the city. This seems totally unbelievable - the city is experiencing devastating famine. The aide to the king responds to Elisha mockingly, disbelieving that such a thing could be possible. This too is an interesting decision. Elisha’s words do seem unbelievable. From the current state of the city, there seems to be no way to achieve abundance of food within a day. They are being besieged by a more powerful army and have no hope of victory. Based on all available evidence before Elisha’s proclamation, no one would think that the situation would change. And yet, a prophet has made this proclamation. The aide remains stuck in his old way of thinking, unable to take in this new piece of information. He cannot fathom that change might be possible. He does not even bother asking Elisha for more details, instead rejecting evidence which does not conform to his existing worldview.

The lepers go on to discover the Aramean camp abandoned. After each of them has eaten and drunk and amassed a fortune, they decide to go back to the city which viewed them as outcasts in order to let their people know that salvation had come. They take care of themselves and then turn to take care of the city they once abandoned.

When the truth of their words is confirmed, the people go running out of the city to plunder the abandoned Aramean camp. And as they rush out of the gate, they trample the aide to death. The very place where the lepers had once sat contemplating their own deaths if they did not make a change becomes the place of death for the aide who could not open his mind to change. Elisha had foretold the death of the aide, saying to him, ‘Behold, your eyes will see [the food,] but from it you will not eat.’ As the world reopens, may we also let our minds be open to growth and change, that we may partake fully in the new world we create.
Support Torah Sparks

Do you love Torah Sparks? It's brought to you by The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and we rely on your contributions to keep the learning going. Support Torah Sparks by making a donation to FJC or by selecting a subscription below:
For more information about the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, please visit our website or contact us: