A Righteous Parent
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Tazria, begins with laws pertaining to the status of a woman who has given birth to a child. Of course, this event constitutes a great simcha (joy) for the parents and their families. However, according to Torah law, childbirth confers a state of ritual impurity (tumah) upon the mother. While in this state, she is prohibited from partaking of or coming into contact with sacrificial food.
The duration of this state is 33 days when she gives birth to a son and 66 days when she has a daughter. At the culmination of this period, she brings an elevation offering and a sin offering to the Temple and is restored to a state of ritual purity (taharah). These laws have no practical significance in contemporary life, as we do not have the Temple and the sacrificial service. Even so, all the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah contain profound ideas of eternal relevance and must therefore be studied seriously.
A number of questions must be raised. First of all, what is it about childbirth that incurs ritual impurity? One of the most exalted mitzvot of the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply.” To bring children into the world and to afford them a proper upbringing is to participate with Hashem in fulfilling the mandate to populate the world and perfect it.
Moreover, we are curious about the necessity for the mother to bring sacrifices. One of them, the sin offering, clearly implies that some transgression has been committed. This is difficult to comprehend, given that the woman has endured 9 months of pregnancy and the ordeal of labor and childbirth. One would think that she deserves a reward for her efforts, and certainly would not be treated like a “sinner” in need of atonement.
It is also interesting that the chapter on women in childbirth is juxtaposed with that of tzara’at. This subject deals with discolorations that affected the houses, clothing, and bodies of individuals who were guilty of certain sins. These plagues were a manifestation of Divine punishment for major infractions, the most prominent being evil speech (lashon hara). At first glance, there seems to be no relation between the subjects of tzara’at and childbirth. Yet, the Torah saw fit to connect them. What lesson does this impart?
Why does the Torah confer ritual impurity on a woman who has performed such a noble mitzvah and brought new life into the world? In my opinion, the supreme importance of this mitzvah is the reason for the special laws that pertain to mothers. It is conveying to us that childbirth cannot be restricted only to its biological aspects. The goal is not merely to reproduce the species in a purely physical sense. Rather, it is to foster the existence of something unique, a being endowed with a divine soul who will live a life that reflects the image of the Creator.
During pregnancy, the mother is not in her “normal” state; she is virtually consumed by the maternal instinct, which was, itself, responsible for her desire to bear a child. There is no force in the animal kingdom more powerful than the maternal instinct. One should avoid any threatening contact with an animal that is protecting its young.
Giving birth is the most intense emotional experience a human being can have. It makes a dramatic impact on both parents, but the woman’s experience is unique, engendering powerful emotions of joy, but also of anger and even resentment. In the aftermath of childbirth, she must reorient herself psychologically and spiritually, to enter the second phase of the reproductive process, that of raising the child. She must take a step back and make way for the third “partner” in the endeavor, the Creator. That is why the verse states that, on the eighth day, “the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” This command is contrary to the maternal instinct, which seeks to protect the child from all pain.
The mother (and, by extension, the father) must go through a process of spiritual transformation marked by deep introspection. Her thoughts should be focused on the true purpose of life and the genuine goals of parenting. Is the objective to satisfy the maternal and paternal instincts, or is there a greater ideal to strive for? At the onset of a new life, parents should reexamine their values and philosophy of life. They should also be involved in genuine teshuva (repentance).
The Rambam says that the true penitent changes his name, as if to say, I am a new person, not the one who committed the sin. So, too, when a parent brings a new person into the world, he also transforms himself into a “new person.” This is the purpose of the period of ritual impurity and the significance of the elevation and sin offerings the mother brings. The juxtaposition of this section with the laws of tzara’at, which is Divine punishment for significant sins, now makes sense. It is conveying the idea that a major cause of sin is faulty upbringing, which stems from the egotistic motives or shallow values of parents.
Sincere people are always asking, “How can we become better parents?” The best advice I can give is to become better people. The more one studies, gains wisdom, perfects his emotions, and increases his honesty, compassion, and sensitivity, the better a person he becomes. He is then a source of light for himself and all whom he encounters, especially his children. The best parent is a truly righteous person.