Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Parshat Tazria opens with one of the strangest examples of biblical ritual “impurity”: tumat yoledet, tuma resulting from childbirth.
The Torah relates that, following the birth of a male child, a childbearing mother enters a seven-day period of tuma, while following the birth of a female child, a fourteen-day period of tuma is mandated. In each case, these days of tuma are then followed by much lengthier periods (thirty-three days after the birth of a male child and sixty-six days after the birth of a female child) of modified separation from sanctified objects.
Finally, at the close of each extended period, the mother brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Temple to mark her full reentry into society
Bearing a child is clearly one of the most highly sanctified acts possible; the first divine blessing/commandment given to man while still in the Garden of Eden; (Bereishit 1:28) the clearest demonstration of man’s partnership with God. Why, then, does a woman automatically incur a state of tuma as a result of childbirth?
The most basic, and in some ways the most problematic, approach to the perplexing issues surrounding the tumat yoledet is offered by a group of scholars including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Kli Yakar. These commentaries view both the tuma resulting from childbirth and the sin offering in its aftermath as a reflection of the primal sin of Chava, the first woman. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra 12:7; Kli Yakar, Vayikra 12:8) In response to Chava’s role in the consumption of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God condemns her and her female progeny to the travails of childbirth. (Bereishit 3:16)
While giving birth to a child is, therefore, a glorious mitzva, the pain and difficulty associated with the process is the product of sin.
This approach, however, gives rise to serious issues concerning the nature of divine reward and punishment. As we have noted before, Judaism clearly rejects the Christian notion of “original sin” (see Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, ApproachesA). We are not guilty, in perpetuity, of the sin committed by Adam and Chava. On this issue the Torah is clear: “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor shall children die because of their fathers. Each individual will die in his own sin.” (Devarim 24:16) We are each held culpable only for our own failings and not for the failings of others, past, present or future. (See Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, Approaches A for discussion concerning reconciliation of this concept with a seemingly contradictory biblical text) How, then, can these scholars suggest that each childbearing woman across history must somehow atone for a crime committed by her ancestor, at the beginning of time?
The key to understanding this approach may well lie in a distinction that we have noted previously (see ibid.). While Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin,” we cannot deny the reality of “intergenerational reverberation.”
We are not responsible, in any way, for the transgression committed by Adam and Chava at the beginning of time. We are, however, affected by that sin’s ramifications. This is not a punishment, but a reality of life. Had Adam and Chava not sinned, we would now be living a very different existence in the Garden of Eden.
Similarly, we are all concretely connected to each other across the generations.
Such overarching life issues as where we are born, to whom, into what environment – and, in fact, whether or not we are born at all – are determined not only by God, but also by our parents and by those who came before them as well. Even more importantly, our decisions and actions today will critically affect the lives of our children and their progeny tomorrow.
At the decisive moment of childbirth, therefore, the Torah graphically reminds the new parents, through a series of rituals, of the phenomenon of “intergenerational reverberation.” The mother’s state of tuma, her consequent period of physical separation from her husband, the offerings she brings in the aftermath of these events, all result from actions committed by her primal ancestor, millennia earlier. The Torah’s message could not be clearer: We are each partially a product of what came before. How careful, then, must new parents be with their own continuing decisions and actions – for those very decisions and actions will help shape the lives of generations to come.