Know from Whence You Come
Commentators throughout the ages have been perplexed as to why a woman who has just given birth is considered by the Torah to be impure, and furthermore, why she needs to bring a sin offering after the birth! (Leviticus 12: 2, 6) After all, isn’t the first commandment given by God to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply”? (Genesis 1:28)
There are no easy answers to this quandary, and some answers may prove offensive in our modern world, but perhaps the insights of Midrash Yelamdenu may be helpful in understanding this passage:
“‘If a woman conceives'” — that is in accordance with the verse (Job 14:1) ‘a man that is born of woman.’ One notices a beautiful column and says: How beautiful is this column and how magnificent! Then his friend answers him: The column then excites your wonder? If you had seen the quarry from whence it was hewn how you would have wondered!! Similarly when a man sees a large beam it excites his wonder. Then his friend says to him, if you had seen the tree from whence it was taken how you would have wondered! Now if he sees a handsome, magnificent specimen of humankind with his locks hanging down and praises him, his friend says to him: This one you praise? If you had seen from what impurity and filth he came, you would not have been able to look at him! From this it emerges that the stone and the tree are more beautiful than humankind. Indeed Akavia ben Mahallalel stated: Regard three things and you will not come to iniquity. Know from whence you come and whither you shall go and before whom you are destined to give account and judgment of yourself. From where do you come? From a fetid drop…”
Perhaps, as the Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz notes, this was the significance of the defilement and the sin offering of the woman in childbirth. Though the new life within her made her deeply conscious of the greatness of God the Creator, at the same time it made her conscious of her insignificance, and the dust, ashes, and impurity of humankind’s origins — and for this reason she brought a sin—offering.
Whatever the reasoning behind the Torah’s law, it gives us a moment to ponder both our greatness and our humility. We human beings are the pinnacle of creation, and yet, we are ultimately dust, ashes, sweat and blood. If we can bear these two thoughts in mind throughout our lives, we can live years filled with meaning and significance, and yet never grow too haughty to look with disdain at our fellow human beings.
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.