Our proximity to holiness requires our utmost caution

The strict barriers put up between impurity and holiness mean that throughout their lives, humans will invariably be barred from approaching God’s presence in the holiest of places.

A mikveh [ritual bath] (photo credit: Courtesy)
A mikveh [ritual bath]
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Spring is in the air. It is a time of renewal and rebirth after a long, cold winter in which things have lain dormant. According to research done on tens of millions of births, the spring equinox is one of two times of the year in which there is a statistical spike of conceptions resulting in a spate of births in late December or early January (the other spike is in October-November).
The ideal conception days seem to be during the kind of weather in which there are pleasant evenings and days that are agreeable and warm. So it is certainly fitting that we read parashat Tazria, the weekly Torah portion that begins with birth, in the spring.
Last week’s parasha presented the shocking death of Nadav and Avihu. God consumes the two sons of Aaron as He consumed the burnt offerings given on the eighth day. Rashi explains that the same fire that consumed the burnt offerings and fat parts on the outer altar started in the Holy of Holies to burn the incense, and consumed Nadav and Avihu before traveling to the outer altar to consume the offerings.
Many explanations have been given, both critical and non-critical, as to why the two men died but simply put, Nadav and Avihu unfortunately deviated from the strict protocol determined by God that they had been following on the previous eight days. The response is harsh and immediate: They become the burnt offerings. While the sons of Aaron might not have understood the consequences of deviating from protocol, upon their deaths, Aaron and the children of Israel have learned a fundamental lesson: Proximity to holiness requires utmost caution.
For this reason perhaps, the Torah takes a break of five chapters before returning to the consequences of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in chapter 16, in the parasha called Aharei Mot or “After the Deaths.” In these intervening chapters, the Torah presents a structure of purity and impurity that spans five chapters and regulates the ability of men and women to come before God’s presence in the Tabernacle.
Rabbi Chanoch Waxman explains the reason for these six chapters being inserted here: “The common denominator of chapters 11 through 15, the laws of purity and impurity, consists not just of the categories of purity and impurity but also the need to separate between the impure and the holy. Whether in the context of the sanctuary itself, the camp within which it resides or the people within whose camp God resides, holiness demands special care and particular conditions for encountering and preserving it.”
I WOULD LIKE to suggest that the strict barriers put up between impurity and holiness mean that throughout their lives, humans will invariably be barred from approaching God’s presence in the holiest of places simply because of their physical conditions, regardless of their spiritual aspirations.
In the world of Tabernacle, the nation of Israel in its entirety - man, woman, child, Priest, Levite, Israelite - will spend their lives, until the Second Temple is destroyed, being aware of the limitations presented by their physical, human bodies in the context of ritual purity and impurity. These limitations will at times mandate distance from God’s presence, which ultimately should create yearning for the states of purity which will allow a re-engagement with the world of sacrifice.
It is thus, very appropriate that the whole system is introduced with the birthing woman, clearly presented here out of order. Chapter 12 is confusing. The birthing woman is compared to a menstruating woman, or niddah (“She shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity” Leviticus 12:1) before we have actually read about the niddah in chapter 15.
At this point we know nothing about menstrual infirmity or about purification of the niddah. We find out that the birthing woman has a state of “blood purification,” however, only after we finish chapter 15 do we go back and understand how unique that is and how the birthing woman has two periods of purification: the first period like the niddah (double for birthing a girl) and the second period which is 40 days (or 80 days, again double for a girl). The end of the second period then allows her to return to God’s sanctuary and resume eating sanctified food after bringing a burnt offering and a sin offering.
In chapter 15 we are presented with four types of bodily generated impurity, all from the sexual organs. First is the zav, an unnatural discharge that creates a lengthy period of impurity culminating in seven days clean of the discharge, immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) and the bringing of sin and burnt offerings.
This is followed by the man with a seminal emission who is impure until nightfall and merely requires immersion in the mikveh along with the woman who has also come into contact with his seed.
The chapter continues with the niddah who is impure for a total of seven days and presumably immerses like the man and woman in the previous chapter.
The list ends with the zavah who, like the zav, exhibits an unnatural form of bleeding (in this case, uterine) requiring seven days clean of the discharge, immersion and sacrifices as stated above.
IN THE A-B-B-A configuration - zav, zera, niddah, zavah - we see that the natural physical states of seminal emission and menstruation. Both are necessary to create life, create minimal states of impurity, and are bracketed by the zav and zavah, neither of which contribute to conception, and represent more stringent states of impurity.
Many have wondered at the need for the birthing woman to bring a sin offering, however, if we read chapters 12-15 carefully, we can wonder as well why the leper, zav or zavah bring sin offerings. In none of these verses do we detect the fury of God for incurring impurity in comparison to the sins of chapters 18-20, in which God rails against abomination and warns that the land will vomit out those engaging in sinful practices.
Rather, impurity results from the physical body, which experiences discharges and emissions that creates a state of impurity. It is important to note that one person can be hygienically clean but impure, while another person can be filthy, even with suppurating wounds, and remain in a state of purity. There is no shame in being impure. It is a consequence of our human condition, a condition desired by God in His creation of man.
Baruch Levine clarifies in his commentary on Vayikra: “Ancient man seldom distinguished between sin and impurity. In man’s relation to God all sinfulness produced [spiritual] impurity. All impurity, however contracted, could lead to sinfulness if not attended to, and failure to deal properly with impurity aroused God’s anger [coming to the Temple in a state of impurity, for instance]. The point is that the requirement to present a sin offering does not necessarily presume any offense on the part of the person so obligated. This offering was often needed to remove impurity. Childbirth, for example, was not sinful - it involved no violation of law - yet a sin offering was required.”
I will further develop this idea by suggesting that the Torah places the birthing woman in order to preempt negative association with the state of impurity. After all, birth is one of the most desirable and elevated experiences of the human condition. If we advance the midrashic idea that man, woman and God all participate in conception of a child, then it is the only way in which godliness can be perpetuated – through the birth of humans who are created in the image of God.
In other words, at the moment when a couple most feels the presence of godliness in their lives, especially if both mother and child survive, the woman, though blameless, becomes niddah followed by a unique period of impurity. Although she may want to bring thanksgiving offerings, she must wait until the period of impurity ends, acknowledge the “distance” by bringing a sin offering, and only afterward can she choose to bring thanksgiving offerings and celebrate “with God” at her discretion.
While the world of sacrifices is no longer in existence, I would like to suggest that there is a greater underlying message. At times of spiritual exploration or growth, we might ignore the physical manifestations of our human condition. Judaism fully endorses integrating the physical and the spiritual in our total relationship with God. The Torah, in its presentation of the laws of purity and impurity that solely involve our physical bodies, forces us to recognize that in addition to the soul, the body is an active participant in our relationship with God, both in distancing us but, more significantly, in ultimately allowing us to also reconnect.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.