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“The Nexus of Life and Death”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, Ph.D., M.J.S., B.C.C. ’11
Lying in the delivery room after 24 hours of labor with my first child, I began to wonder if I would survive. I did. This week’s Torah portion starts with a focus on the laws concerning purification after childbirth: Childbirth results in a woman being impure (tamah, Leviticus 12:2). A period of waiting (7 days for a male child and 14 days for a female child), water, and sacrifices brought to the Cohen will make her pure (tahora). What might be the spiritual values that underlie the concept of purity (tahor) and impurity (tumah)?
Tumah is often described as an atmospheric coating or layer enveloping the impure person. Though invisible it was considered real. The Torah identifies four causes of impurity: human corpses, animal carcasses, fluxes of life fluids and a skin condition called tazra-at (the last two are the focus of Tazria) . All these are death or manifestations of death—the escape of the forces of life. The Women’s Torah Commentary on this parsha remarks that “a common denominator regarding physical conditions that produce impurity is their association with the nexus of life and death.”
So you may say, but birth is bringing forth new life. However, until recent times childbirth brought with it a higher potential of death. Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun reminds us that even if a woman successfully delivers a baby, it leaves a void, both physical and emotional (as we know from those who suffer postpartum depression).
My teacher Rabbi Anne Brener instructs that birth moves us from one womb (rechem) to another (el malei rachamim) under the wings of Shechinah in death. Birth and death have many qualities in common. Both result in the physical condition of impurity and are made tahor by water. In the case of the mother who has just delivered, she must have the Cohen complete the process of tahora with two offerings. In the case of a meit (a dead person), it is the chevra kaddisha that performs the washing that makes the meit tahor. There is a kind of paradox in the tahara: touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of kindness making the body tahor.
Although I have participated in several taharot, I cannot say I come away understanding life and death. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-in-a-body — tamei and tahor — these are mysteries, maybe paradoxes. How we become holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kaddisha will someday use to sanctify my dead body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole life journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp. Rabbi Ibn Pukedey teaches that life and death are brothers, they dwell together, cling together, and cannot be separated.
I honor this intermingled quality of life and believe that the purity laws of Tazria help us ritualize and witness this mystery.