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April 9, 2013 By:
Our Sages Sought to Avoid Tragedies
This week, we dive into a double, challenging portion, Tazria/Metzora. Now at the midpoint of the book of Leviticus, we continue to explore the Torah’s presentation of what it means to live as a holy people.
Tazria opens with a discussion of the ritual status of a woman who has given birth. Commentators have long been fascinated by the distinction made between the new mother’s access to holy places, holy things, and sanctified activities depending on whether she has given birth to a son or a daughter.
The text teaches that following the infant male’s circumcision on the eighth day following birth, “she (the mother) shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days. ” Following the birth of a daughter, the mother “shall remain in a state of blood-purification for 66 days.”
Blood is a wondrous and mysterious fluid. “In the Torah,” teaches professor Elaine Goodfriend, “blood is synonymous with life (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:14). Vaginal blood had an even greater significance for some of the ancients, who thought that it contained the seed that united with the male seed (semen) to produce a human being.” Both menstrual blood and the blood of birth are sources of power and consternation, for when women bleed, blood is a sign of life. When men bleed, and the bleeding is not stopped, life is threatened.
The new mother is separated from holy places while she attends to her baby. Some scholars understand the longer period with a daughter as a projection of the infant’s future as woman whose status will be different and less valued than a male heir.
Others posit that the newborn girl’s vulnerability mandates an extended period of protection. Professor Beth Alpert Nakhai suggests that “in times of need, famine and war, baby girls might suffer hunger and neglect, or even be abandoned and left to die. The priestly authors seem to be concerned about this situation and try to avert such tragedies.”
Our sages anticipated contemporary tragedies. Last week, The New York Times reported about an impoverished, desperate Afghan father who lives in a refugee camp outside of Kabul. Forced to borrow money for medical care for his family, Taj Mohammad used his 6-year-old daughter as collateral on the loan. If he was unable to repay it within a year, the child would become the bride of the 17-year-old son of the lender; and it was certain that she would become a servant in the lender’s household.
Although an anonymous donor paid the debt, there is no guarantee that this child, or thousands like her, are protected against child marriage and lifelong servitude that still threaten the lives and the well-being of millions of girls across the globe.
Despite increased gender equality in many places, too many women are still considered second-class citizens and denied basic human freedoms. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s reporting has illuminated how we in the West can support the thousands of souls who are, every day, saving the lives and ensuring a future of women and girls (halftheskymovement.org).
Our sages anticipated that there will always be those who are undervalued. As we continue our Omer journey, may we be among those whose compassion and action contributes to the health and wellbeing of all of God’s children.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected].