The Gift of Motherhood: A Message from Leviticus 12 on Mother’s Day 2013

 The Gift of Motherhood:

A Message from Leviticus 12 on Mother’s Day 2013

          “And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering…” Leviticus 12:6

God has always revealed Himself to humankind through His Word - the Bible, and His Word became flesh in “Jesus Christ” to reveal Himself fully to humankind. True Christianity is about the Lord Jesus who is the descent of God into the middle of our muddled lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping that he might approve when He sees how hard we try. God's involvement in our lives is not limited to history. Jesus Christ - is EMMANUEL - God with us NOW - not just in the past or somewhere out in the future BUT right NOW and FOREVER!  Hence, the Word of God - the Bible, shows us that the commitment that God is looking for from humanity is NOT to escape this life but to know God's power and presence in the here and now, which could transform both our lives and our society.

The Book of Leviticus in the Bible contain laws which are among the most difficult to understand. Some of them deal with conditions of “impurity” arising from the fact that we are spiritual-physical beings exposed to physical conditions and changes in our earthly environment. Throughout history there have been two distinct and opposing ways of relating to our spiritual reality: hedonism (living for physical pleasure) and asceticism (relinquishing physical pleasure). The hedonism worships the physical while denying the spiritual while asceticism enthrones the spiritual at the cost of the physical. True Judeo-Christian way has always been different: to sanctify the physical – eating, drinking, sex and rest – making the life of the body a vehicle for the divine presence. The reason is simple. We believe with perfect faith that the God of redemption is also the God of creation. The physical world we inhabit is the one God made and pronounced “very good.” To be a hedonist is to deny God. To be an ascetic is to deny the goodness of God’s world. To be a Judeo-Christian is to celebrate both creation and Creator. That is the principle that explains many otherwise incomprehensible features of Judeo-Christian life.

The laws of childbirth purification in Israel are striking examples of this fact:

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy, she shall be teme’ah for seven days, just as she is during the time of separation when she has her period . . . Then, for thirty-three additional days she shall have a waiting period during which her blood is ritually clean. Until this purification period is complete, she shall not touch anything holy and shall not enter the sanctuary.

If she gives birth to a girl, she shall have for two weeks the same teme’ah status as during her menstrual period. Then, for sixty-six days after that, she shall have a waiting period during which her blood is ritually clean. She then brings a burnt-offering and a sin-offering, after which she is restored to “ritual purity.”

What is the meaning of these laws?  

Why does childbirth render the mother teme’ah (usually translated as “ritually impure”, better understood as “a condition which impedes or exempts from a direct encounter with holiness”)?

And why is the period after giving birth to a girl twice that for a boy?

There is a temptation to see these laws as inherently beyond the reach of human understanding. Several Rabbinic and Christian statements seem to say just this. In fact, it is not so, as the great Rabbi Maimonides explains at length in the “Guide to the Perplexed.”

The first principle essential to understanding the laws of ritual purity and impurity is that God is life, and He honors LIFE. Christianity and Judaism are a profound rejection of cults, ancient and modern, that glorify death.  It is a protest against death-centered cultures. “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, nor those who go down into silence” (Psalm 114) “What profit is there in my death, if I go down into the pit? Can the dust acknowledge You? Can it proclaim your truth?” (Psalm 30).  As Moses put it in two memorable words: “Choose life” (Deut. 30: 19).

In Leviticus 12, the Lord shows great sensitivity to the birth of a child. Nothing is more “natural” than procreation. Every living thing engages in it. Sociobiology go so far as to argue that a human being is a gene’s way of creating another gene. By contrast, the Torah goes to great lengths to describe how many of the heroines of the Bible – among them Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah and the Shunamite woman – were infertile and had children only through a miracle.

Clearly the Torah intends a message here, and it is unmistakable. To be a believer is to know that survival is not a matter of biology alone. What other cultures may take as natural is for us a miracle. Every child is a gift of God. The Bible is very serious about the issue of building up the next generation. Childbirth is wondrous. To be a parent is the closest any of us come to God Himself.  That, incidentally, is why women are closer to God than men, because they, unlike men, know what it is to bring new life out of their bodies, as God brings life out of Himself. The idea is beautifully captured in the verse in which, leaving Eden, Adam turns to his wife and calls her Chavah “for she is the mother of all life.” 

We can now speculate about the laws relating to childbirth. When a mother gives birth, not only does she undergo great risk (until recently, childbirth was a life-threatening danger to mother and baby alike). She is also separated from what until now had been part of her own body (a fetus, said the rabbis, “is like a limb of the mother”) and which has now become an independent person. If that is so in the case of a boy, it is doubly so in the case of a girl – who, with God’s help, will not merely live but may herself in later years become a source of new life. At one level, therefore, the laws signal the detachment of life from life.

In Leviticus 12 God is sayingto the mother: for forty days in the case of a boy, and doubly so in the case of a girl (the mother-daughter bond is ontologically stronger than that between mother and son), I exempt you from coming before Me in the place of holiness because you are fully engaged in one of the holiest acts of all, nurturing and caring for your child. Unlike others you do not need to visit the Temple to be attached to life in its entire sacred splendor. You are experiencing it yourself, directly and with every fiber of your being. Days, weeks, from now you will come and give thanks before Me (together with offerings for having come through a moment of danger). But for now, look upon your child with wonder. For you have been given a glimpse of the great secret, otherwise known only to God.

Childbirth exempts the new mother from attendance at the Temple because her bedside replicates the experience of the Temple. She now knows what it is for love to beget life and in the midst of mortality to be touched by an intimation of immortality.



The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson

COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Tazria-Metsorah – Holiness and Childbirth by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks