Between the Lines—Tazri•a

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Leviticus Rabbah 14:2

רבי לוי אמר תלת בנוהג שבעולם מפקיד אדם אצל חבירו ארנקי של כסף בחשאי ומחזיר לו ליטרא של זהב בפרהסיא אינו מחזיק לו טובה כך הקב״ה מפקידין לו הבריות טיפה של לכלוכית בחשאי והקב״ה מחזיר להם נפשות משובחות שלמות בפרהסיא ואין זה שבח הוי (איוב לו) אשא דעי למרחוק ולפועלי אתן צדק רבי לוי אמר אוחרי בנוהג שבעולם אדם חבוש בבית האסורין אין כל בריה משגחת עליו בא אחד והדליק לו שם נר אינו מחזיק לו טובה כך הקב״ה הולד שרוי במעי אמו ומאיר לו שם נר הוא

אין זה שבח הוי ולפועלי אתן צדק ר״ל אומר אוחרי בנוהג שבעולם אדם חבוש בבית האסורין ואין כל בריה משגחת עליו בא אחד והתירו והוציאו משם אינו מחזיק לו טובה כך הולד שרוי במעי אמו ובא הקב״ה והתירו והוציאו משם

R. Levi said three things: Ordinarily, if a man entrusts his friend with an ounce of silver in private, and the latter returns to him a pound of gold in public, will he not be grateful to the latter? Thus it is with the Blessed Holy One: Creatures privately entrust to Him a drop of (seminal) fluid, and the Blessed Holy One openly returns to them completed and perfected souls. Is this not [worthy of] praise? This [illustrates how] "I will make my opinions widely known; I will justify my Maker." (Job 36:3)

R. Levi said another thing: Ordinarily, if a man is confined in prison with no one giving him attention, and someone comes and kindles a light for him there, will he not be grateful to the latter? Thus it is with the Blessed Holy One: When the fetus is in its mother's womb, He causes a light to shine for it there . . .

Is this not [worthy of] praise? This [also illustrates how]" . . . I will justify my Maker." (Job 36:3)

R. Levi said yet another thing: Ordinarily, if a man is confined in prison with no one giving him attention, and someone comes and releases him and takes him from there, will he not be grateful to the latter? Similarly, when the fetus is in its mother's womb, the Blessed Holy One comes and releases it and brings it forth [into the world].

How can men understand something like pregnancy, which is so fundamentally foreign to the male experience? As contemporary Jews, we often raise questions about how our classical sources, compiled by men, portray "the other," in this case, child-bearing women. We find in the midrash above an ancient rabbi's attempt to understand childbirth, the opening subject of this week's Torah portion, and identify men's role in it. This text demonstrates one way in which Jewish men have praised God (and might yet extol women) for bringing new life into the world.

Many centuries before the advent of modern biology, R. Levi expresses his pre-scientific imagination about human reproduction through three parables. Each one makes the processes of conception and gestation less mysterious in order to expound far greater praise for God's hidden role therein. At the same time, the mother's experience of pregnancy remains unspoken in this midrash, as though women are merely silent partners in a God-controlled venture. This deficiency, however, can become an opportunity for dialogue if we listen to women's stories about pregnancy and childbirth to uncover new metaphors to illustrate how God manifests in our lives.

As Passover approaches, we can prepare to celebrate Israel's spiritual birth as a nation by drawing upon new metaphors for God's motherly role in creation and liberation from women's lived experience of bearing children. May we thus express amazement for the wonders of new life.