In the Water Torah for Parshat Tzav, I said a lot of the Book of Leviticus grosses me out… Well, the saga continues. This week's Parsha, Parshat Tazria really takes the cake. This Parsha is all about cleanliness. First, concerning a woman who has just given birth. Because of all the blood issued forth during childbirth, the mother is considered impure for seven days if she gives birth to a male child or 14 days if she gives birth to a female child. This section has always challenged me because I reject the concept that a woman who just performed the greatest miracle in human history could be considered unclean or impure. Everything surrounding childbirth is miraculous. Also, as the father of a phenomenally tremendous son AND daughter, I don't accept the antiquated view that having male offspring over female is better.
The second part of the Parsha is all about leprosy. It discusses when a person with leprosy is considered unclean and eventually clean, how long the individual is to separate from the community, and when the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest) shall declare him clean. As if Parshat Shemini wasn't gross enough, this section is filled with scabs and open sores, raw flesh, puss-filled lesions, inflamed rashes, scaly skin, and hair in ulcers turning white or yellow. There's a reason I didn't go to medical school. Just reading this parsha makes me a bit queasy. So all around, I have difficulties with this Parsha.
And to add insult to injury, since these Divrei Torah are supposed to be about Water in the Torah, with all of the uncleanliness, blood, and disease presented in the Parsha, water is not mentioned even once.
Or is it?
Throughout our tradition, as I have said on countless occasions, water is generally viewed as an agent of purification. The most obvious example of this is the Mitzvah of the Mikveh (immersion in a ritual bath). Traditionally, when a woman experiences her menstrual period or has any form of uterine discharge of blood, as in childbirth, she is supposed to go to a Mikveh, where immersion in water leads to a state of "purification." For the record, I think the fact that a woman can bleed for seven days and not die is a miracle.
Accompanying this parsha in "The Torah: A Women's Commentary" is a beautiful article about the nature of Mikveh. For a more practical and hands-on experience of learning and actual immersion, Mayyim Hayyim in Boston is an excellent resource. The nature of water as an agent of purification and/or transition is so profoundly associated with menstruation and childbirth that its absence from the parsha is conspicuous.
There are a lot of commentaries on this parsha, mostly dealing with the literal state of uncleanliness of the woman or the role of the Kohanim in determining the state of uncleanliness of the woman or the leper. However, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194-1270) reads this section very differently. The first line of the parsha reads:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא
"Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives, and gives birth to a male, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean." Lev.12:2
Ramban reads the words אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר not as "if a woman conceives and gives birth to a son" but rather as "if the woman emits seed first, she will give birth to a son." In other words, as a matter of practical advice, Ramban said that if a woman achieved orgasm first during intercourse, it would produce a male child. In ancient times and in a patriarchal society, a male child was considered favorable over a female child.
He then discussed the nature of conception. He said: "For in the opinion of the Rabbis the child is formed from the blood of the female and the white [semen] of the male, both of them are called 'seed.'" He then enters into a discussion about the content of what is contributed by the mother and what is contributed by the father adding in some questionable medical knowledge but culminating with the profound statement, "the whole body of the child is formed from the blood of the mother, the father only contributing that generative force (הכח הידוע)," which he refers to as Hiyuly היולי. This term Hiyuly, he explains, is the language of Greek Philosophers, but which in Hebrew is הכח הידוע, the Generative Force. So fundamentally, Rambam is saying that which most of us learned in middle school, that when the זרע of a female (the egg, associated with blood) meets the זרע (sperm, associated with semen) of a male, a baby is conceived. What is necessary on a deeper level for this to happen? Water! Without it, this process is impossible. Blood, as we know, is about 90% water, and semen is about 80% water. Without water, none of this would be possible.
Reveal the Water
So this Parsha, which, on the surface, has no water, is actually filled with water. Yet like so much water on the planet, it is there, but we don't see it. It fills the Ocean, but we only see the surface. It fills our bodies, but we don't feel it. It gives us life, and we don't even notice.