Anybody who has ever seen a doctor placing a very wrinkled and wailing little creature in the arms of an exhausted woman who has just given birth experiences the wonder of one of life’s greatest mysteries. Though it has been repeated countless times over the course of generations, childbirth never loses its capacity to provoke us to consider the profoundest aspects of our own existence and the role of the Mysterious One within it.
This week’s double portion Tazria-Metzora provokes these thoughts, beginning the weekly reading with the “Instruction (Torah) concerning a woman who gives birth.” The sedra commences with the Eternal’s command to Moses to “speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘A woman who bears seed and gives birth to a male-child — she will be impure seven days; according to the days of the impurity of her menstruation she will be impure.'” One of the classical midrashic collections, Leviticus Rabbah, sidesteps the purity laws of this section of Torah, exploring instead the Divine’s hidden role in the natural processes of conception, gestation, and childbirth.
Leviticus Rabbah offers three parables of Rabbi Levi which consider God’s role in procreation. Concerning conception, Rabbi Levi muses that in the life of everyday commerce, a person deposits an ounce of silver with his fellow and after some time his fellow repays him with an ounce of gold. So too with the Blessed Holy One: God gives human beings a small amount of seed — something seemingly insignificant — which after time produces a complete human being of incalculable worth.
Once conception occurs and the embryo comes to dwell in its mother’s womb, Rabbi Levi teaches that the Blessed Holy One does not allow this new forming life to dwell alone in darkness, but comforts it by lighting a lamp. Finally, the Eternal does not allow the fetus to wallow in its mother’s womb, bound forever. Like one who redeems a person from bondage, God releases the fetus and brings it forth into the light of the world. For these acts of kindness, asks Rabbi Levi, how can we not help but sing the praises of God?
Rabbi Levi teaches that in every age and stage of our lives we partner with and often rely upon God’s compassion to weather the transitions along the way, be they birth and childhood, marriage, and parenting, vocation and maturity, and eventually, our passing from this world to the next. Rabbi Levi’s path does not demand quiet resignation in the face of the overwhelming power of the divine mystery. Rather, he challenges each of us to a higher awareness, to delve more deeply and to peer more distantly beyond apparent realities to firmer and more lasting truths.
Staring with awe at that new life in the arms of the doctor who was checking him to make sure everything was in working order, I gave quiet thanks for my partner, for midwives and doctors, and for the Compassionate One who makes each of them possible.