The Ever-Gestating People - Parashat Tazria-Metzora and the Omer 5778
If you asked me how long it is until, God willing, I will be a rabbi, I might answer by saying: It is day 1,682 of my studies toward ordination. The likelihood is good that you would find that an odd answer, and not only because I know the exact number of days. When we are counting towards an important date, we usually count down, not up – so it might sound more natural to you if I said, ‘It is 394 days until my ordination.’ However, in this period of Counting the Omer – of counting every day between the second day of Passover until Shavuot – we count upwards. We start at Day 1 of the Omer, and we count every day until Day 49. But why not start at Day 49 and count downwards? If we counted downwards, we would always know how many days until the arrival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of Torah. It would be dramatic and effective. And instead, we declare that today is Day 21 of the Omer, and even though we are counting towards Shavuot, we’re left to do the maths ourselves.
There is one other area of life in which we count upwards towards an important moment: pregnancy. The most common way of asking a woman about her pregnancy is to ask, ‘How far along are you?’ If we were truly only interested in when the baby is expected to enter the world, we would always ask ‘when are you due’, but that seems a less common question. And I believe that one reason this is the case is that the state of the foetus is important. A foetus at fifteen weeks is very different to a foetus at twenty weeks, and so on. When we ask ‘how far along are you’, we are seeking information about something we cannot see, and something that is very significant. We are asking about whether or not the foetus has fingerprints now, or can sense the sound of our voices as we are speaking. We might also be asking about the experience of the mother – not just the anticipation of the delivery date, but also how it feels for her right now. Yes, the day of expected delivery is important, but so is today. And such is also the case with the Omer. If we counted down towards Shavuot, you might be inclined to think that today is not important. But actually, every day between Pesah and Shavuot is a holy day in and of itself. It stands to reason that if receiving Torah at Sinai was the birth of our People, then the Exodus from Egypt was our conception, and this period of time – the Omer – is our gestational stage. We are called to see ourselves in this period of time as not-yet-fully-formed, like the foetus in the womb – changing and growing every day.
The birth of the human being is itself is, of course, a miracle – but it is also something of an oddity. Humans are born half-baked. Our distant ancestors stood up, and our heads grew so large, and this all culminated in human infants being born early to ensure the survival of our species. This is why so many animal infants are born running, and are pursuing their own food in weeks, and human infants require years of constant care. We are premature as a species. However, this is also why humans are so incredibly adaptable to society. Yuval Noah Harari, in his amazing work Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, writes: ‘Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.’ It seems to me that even when born, we are not yet fully formed.
This week’s double-portion of the Torah, Tazria-Metzora, also has some interesting notions about pregnancy and childbirth. First, we learn that a woman who gives birth becomes tamei, or ‘ritually impure’, as a result of that birth. These concepts are lost to time in our tradition partly because almost all of these ideas are not practiced without a Temple, and have therefore been mostly irrelevant for the last 2,000 years – and partly because the concept of ritual impurity has always eluded our grasp, and can seem somewhat uncomfortable. It is my belief that the connecting factor amongst the experiences that make a person tamei is mortality. When people go through specific experiences that bring them to the edge of what it means to be mortal, they then attain for a period of time the status of being ‘tamei’, or ‘ritually impure’. At the end of that period of time, the individual is invited to partake in a ritual to become tahor, ‘ritually pure’, once again. This brings us to the second ritual component of childbirth that we learn in this week’s parashah. The less significant experiences that make someone tamei only require ritual immersion in a body of water to bring someone back to being tahor. The more significant experiences required the purification ritual of a korban, an animal sacrifice brought to the Temple. Childbirth comes under the latter category. However, according to our Torah portion, one of the sacrifices the new mother is expected to offer is a hataat, a ‘sin offering’. This fact has confused the rabbis throughout the centuries. Why would a new mother need to bring a ‘sin offering’? For what ‘sin’ is she atoning?
Nehama Leibowitz, in her Studies in Vayikra, compares the experience of the new mother to the experience of Yishayahu, ‘Isaiah’, in his vision of the angels. Yishayahu’s vision gives us the line from the Kedushah: קדוש, קדוש, קדוש ה' צבאות, מלא כל הארץ כבודו. After hearing the angels declare this phrase – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with God’s glory’ – Yishayahu responds with the following:
וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי, וּבְתוֹךְ עַם-טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם, אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב: כִּי, אֶת-הַמֶּלֶךְ ה' צְבָאוֹת--רָאוּ עֵינָי.
And I said: Woe to me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of tamei lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of tamei lips; for my eyes have seen the sovereign, the Lord of Hosts.
Yishayahu has a vision of the Divine and the angels, and his response is to declare himself as tamei. This experience of holiness is so radical that Yishayahu, the Prophet, the man of God, is brought to painful awareness that he is just dust and ashes, just a flawed creature. For Nehama Leibowitz, it is not just the brush with mortality that defines the experience of the new mother, it is the brush with holiness. Bringing new life into the world allows the mother to be radically aware of the vastness of the universe, and to be deeply conscious of the Holy One – and just like the Prophet Yishayahu, this experience brings her to be painfully conscious of the fact that she too is dust and ashes. Nehama Leibowitz brings the Yishayahu text to teach that the requirement of a ‘sin offering’ is not due to a new sin – it is due to a new awareness. It is therefore not only the foetus that is irrevocably changed through the process of pregnancy and birth, it is also the mother. In the womb, we are ever-changing. Upon being birthed, we remain like glass fresh from the heat, ready to be spun and shaped. And even when we have grown to the point that we are ready to create and sustain life ourselves, we remain changing, we continue to be not-yet-fully-formed.
We are counting now, in our gestational period, toward Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah, our birth at Mt Sinai. But we will not be complete at Shavuot. Even in the third holiday of the cycle, Sukkot, we will still be sheltered and nurtured under the wings of the Divine presence. The counting of the Omer invites us to recognise our own status as ever-changing, as never-quite-fully-formed. I bless us that we should be able to accept this invitation, to understand ourselves as a People and as individuals as always, always growing.