By Judy Aronson, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Education
When I began reading the first of our double portions Tazria, I thought how clever of the scribes of Torah to allow new mothers to be isolated as they regain strength after childbirth. They almost become “untouchable,” eschewing sexual relations and staying out of the temple courtyard, far from any sacred objects that their impure blood might defile.
Why is there less healing time for the mother of a male child (the first part just until the 8th day)? I remember that I was not in the front row for either of my sons’ Brit Milah ceremonies. In fact, the mohel instructed me to go into the bedroom and wait till I was called. In later years when I was a guest, I often noticed the fear in young mothers’ eyes when they handed their sons over to the Zondak.
According to the Rev. Dr. A Cohen, in an early Soncino edition of Chumash, “The time is doubled in length (for a girl) because the after-effects are prolonged owing to the difference in the physical constitution of a female child as compared with the male.” I am fairly certain that Rabbi Cohen lacked the available medical evidence that female infants have larger brains and better chances of survival than males. This leaves me thinking that it is about the pollution of the blood of a female fetus that takes much longer to change. No sense here for me.
Next, the mother has to bring sacrifices to atone for herself to make her clean so she can return to normal life and sexual relations. I wonder why she would be in a hurry to end her “impurity.” Nonetheless, there are limitations on this ritualistic separation and return. I was reminded that these rituals only apply to women living in the Holy Land at the time of the Temple. In another direction, I search for meaning and understanding, for anyone’s health is a great gift. Rather than a sacrifice of atonement, I would expect a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the birth of a child and the refuah shleimah of the mother.
In the next chapter and parsha Tazria, we turn to something that we might call “leprosy” today. I am writing this as I observe shiva for my brother-in-law Elliot Aronson who died on the last day of Pesach. Hid death was partially attributed to a massive infection called “cellulitis” compounded with diabetes, which blocks anti-biotics from entering his blood stream. In the time of the Temple, it may be that the Priests were diagnosticians. Perhaps some of the Priests became experts and learned how to treat the scabrous condition of the supplicants who came to them for treatment and healing.
I’m afraid Elliot was also considered unclean, and a sign on his bed stated that no one was to touch him without gloves. I don’t know if that was a protection for him or for his caretakers. I do know that you could visibly see oozing of fluids from his leg and, had he lived longer, he was a candidate for amputation.
Following his death and before his funeral, the family emptied his apartment. We discarded many things and separated others to be washed and cleaned. I took hot showers at night because the work was arduous and I felt unclean.
We also gathered and put into two large shopping bags dozens of medications, mostly antibiotics that CVS will dispose of safely. Just as in Biblical times, we have remedies that do not work for everyone.
Our story continues with the cleansing rituals for leprosy. These include sacrifice that may have simply been sympathetic magic.
For myself, I am looking for a substitute for the Guilt Offering. The loss of a loved one seems to create guilt all around. Mentioned by name in his will, I am embarrassed. Did I do enough for him? We lived on different coasts, but we were close but not close enough.
At his request, I officiated at his funeral. Our family and friends assured me that I did him justice and he left with wonderful memories of him.
Studying these Torah portions has been the beginning of my healing. Ritual when it is sacrifice of the heart leads us to Shalom.