Parshas Tazria - Metzora (5773)
This week’s double Torah portion begins with a discussion of the laws of a woman who conceives and gives birth to a child. The Torah tells us that after she gives birth, she is considered tamei, or spiritually impure, for a designated period of time, after which she is required to offer an Olah (elevation-offering) and a Chatas (sin-offering) to G-d in the Temple.
You might be wondering why, at the mother’s greatest moment of joy at the birth of her child, the Torah would consider her ritually impure, and would ask her to bring a “sin-offering” at the end of her contamination period. It seems a bit incongruous, doesn’t it? Impurity? Sin-offering? What could possibly be the rationale for making a brand new Mom undergo a period of “impurity” to be followed by the bringing of a “sin-offering” after she gives birth to a bouncing baby boy or girl? If anything, the birth of a child should be a time to celebrate and to thank G-d for the wonderful gift of life that He sent our way?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the concept of the mother’s spiritual impurity as follows:
In describing the process of human childbirth, the Torah uses the expression Isha ki sazria – lit. “When a woman has yielded a seed” – which only occurs elsewhere in Genesis 1:11-12, referring to the activity of plants for the continuation of their species. So that the Torah seems to be looking at the mother’s role in producing progeny in the purely physical character of its physiological process – and herein lies the source of the mother’s tumah.
The highest and noblest occupation, on which the whole future of the human race is built – the whole process in the body of the mother of bringing human life into this world – is of a purely physical nature just like the growth and sprouting of a plant. The mother experiences intense chevlei leidah, or birth pangs, over which she has absolutely no control, and must passively and painfully submit to the forces of the physical laws of Nature at the most sublime procedure of her earthly calling.
It is precisely this fresh impression of being totally subjected to Nature that is the source of the spiritual impurity with which the mother is contaminated. Man was created in the image of G-d as a free-willed being who has the ability and the power to rise above his animal instincts and to control his destiny. And anything that gives Man the impression that he lacks that essential freedom of will is spiritually dangerous and contaminating.
A woman who has experienced the very physical and “Nature-controlled” process of childbirth must therefore undergo a period of tumah, allowing this false impression to pass out of her collective conscience, before she can begin to properly undertake and truly enjoy the very important job of raising Jewish children, which, according to the Torah, is the spiritual height of her calling of Woman and Mother.
In addition to her undergoing a period of spiritual impurity, the commentaries explain that the woman who gives birth must bring the two offerings – an Olah (elevation-offering) and a Chatas (sin-offering) – because she seeks atonement for two kinds of sins: The Olah atones for resentful thoughts she may have had against her husband or even her Creator during her labor pains. The Chatas atones for the possibility that, in her intense pain, she might have sworn never to live with her husband again.
THE “PAINS” AND “GAINS” OF CHILDBIRTH
So if we were to analyze the process of childbirth from a Torah perspective, it would seem that the chevlei leidah (intense labor and birth pangs) that a woman experiences immediately prior to her giving birth are really a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the chevlei leidah are a great blessing (in disguise) in that each and every contraction pushes out the baby and brings the mother that much closer to her desired goal of childbirth. [It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for birth pangs – chevel – also means “rope” or “chain”. In this light, we can interpret chevlei leidah to mean the “chain” of contractions – each one a vital link and a necessary step towards the one following it - that leads up to the birth of the child.]
On the other hand, there is a major spiritual “downside” to the process of labor and childbirth that a woman must undergo in order to have a baby. The very physical ordeal of intense pain and agony, in which she is entirely controlled by the forces of Nature, can serve to “contaminate” the mother with the false impression that Man has no free will and is really no different than an animal.
At the same time, the chevlei leidah that she experiences often cause the mother to have resentful thoughts against G-d (and her husband) for all the pain that was caused her by the labor and childbirth.
So what does all this have to do with the Messiah, you ask?
THE “BIRTH PANGS” OF THE MESSIAH
There is an ancient tradition regarding the Pre-Messianic Era that is recorded in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 97a:
Rabbi Yochanan said, “In the generation when the son of David [Mashiach] will come, the number of Torah scholars will dwindle, and as for the rest of the people, their eyes will be wearied through anguish and grief. Every day will bring new adversities and harsh decrees. No sooner is one trouble over than another one appears.”
The great Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, in Book 1 25a and 119a states:
And the sons of Yishmael [the Arabs] in that time [the pre-Messianic era] will fire the entire world to rise up against Jerusalem. And all the nations will band together against the Jews to ‘remove’ them from [the Land and] the world. About this era it is written: “It will be a time of trouble for Jacob [the Jews], but he shall be saved from it” (Jeremiah 30:7).
These harsh decrees and difficult times that were foretold by the great Kabbalists, as well as by the Sages of the Talmud - and that seem to be coming to fruition in our own times when the Arabs have managed to incite most of the world against Israel and when each day brings with it a new suicide bombing or rocket attack (Rachmana Litzlan – May G-d save us) - are collectively referred in the Jewish tradition as Chevlei Mashiach – the “Birth Pangs” of the Messiah.
In their usage of the term Chevlei Mashiach, the Sages are teaching us that the period leading up to the coming of the Messiah bears an exact parallel to the pregnancy and birth pangs of a woman expecting her baby to be born. Just as the labor pains of a woman in childbirth increase in intensity as the child is about to be born, so, too, will the “birth pangs” and agony of the Jewish people increase in intensity right before the Messiah comes and the Jewish people will be “reborn” and redeemed.
THE PURPOSE OF CHEVLEI MASHIACH
Rabbi Yochanan, speaking about these “birth pangs of the Messiah”, exclaimed: “Let [the Messiah] come, but may I not see it!” (Sanhedrin 98b)
The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yochanan was not merely afraid of the physical pain and suffering that the Jewish people might have to undergo in the period preceding the arrival of the Messiah. The trials and tribulations of the Chevlei Mashiach that are to befall the Jewish people might be very difficult and physically painful. But it was the ultimate purpose of these “birth pangs” that was of primary concern and worry to the great Rabbi Yochanan.
In the Book of Daniel (12:10), when talking about all of the trials and the suffering that is to befall the Jewish people in the End of Days, the Angel declares:
“Many will become purified, whitened, and refined; but the wicked will do wickedly and they will not understand; but they who are wise will understand.”
The Sages interpret this prophecy to mean that the pain and suffering of the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah” is a test from heaven, and that only the wise will understand that this is a test and that they must stand firm in their faith.
Much the same way that the woman in labor is subjected to forces of Nature which are seemingly beyond her control, we, too, are being tested today by being placed into a desperate situation over which we have absolutely no control, and which seems to have no solution and no end in sight.
The physical forces of evil at work today are so predominant and all-powerful as to pose a great danger of rendering the Jewish people “spiritually contaminated and impure” by allowing us to think that G-d is not in control of the affairs of the world, and that Man, like the animal kingdom, is a purely physical being subject only to the Law of Nature. And the pain and agony of our people is so great that we might bear resentful thoughts against G-d for allowing this terrible suffering to occur.
Only the wise will understand that all these trials and pains of the Chevlei Mashiach are part of a “chain” of events orchestrated by G-d in which each new “birth pang” is absolutely crucial and brings us that much closer to our desired goal of future redemption. But many will not understand and will not pass the test.
It is this great test of faith during the Chevlei Mashiach that frightened Rabbi Yochanan to the point that he said, “Let the Messiah come, but may I not see it!”.
HOW CAN WE PASS THE TEST?
We are going through incredibly difficult times, the likes of which have never been experienced by the people of Israel, and the obvious question is – if the situation in the Middle East is indeed a test of our faith in G-d, seeing as we are that all other solutions to the problem have failed, then what should be our response? How can we pass this extraordinarily difficult test? What does G-d expect from us at this point in history and what can we do as a nation to bring an end to these Chevlei Mashiach?
I believe that the answer to these questions, and the proper response to the unique test of our times, can be found in a verse in Hosea (13:13), where the Prophet bemoans the tragic suffering of his people who have prolonged their own misery and delayed the Ultimate Redemption:
“The pangs of childbirth [chevlei yoleidah] will come upon him; he is an unwise child, for he should not stay long at the children’s birthstool.”
The Malbim explains this verse using the parallel of a woman in childbirth. While most of the contractions that bring her closer to the birth of her child yet which cause her so much pain are out of her control and are entirely governed by the laws of Nature, the final pushing out of the baby must actively be done by the mother herself. And the longer the mother waits without pushing out the baby, the longer she prolongs her agony and delays the childbirth.
And so it is, says the Malbim, with the chevlei yoleidah and “birth pangs” of the Jewish people as a whole. The prophet Hosea is telling us that we are being “unwise” because we are prolonging our own agony and suffering by not “pushing out the Messiah” through our own efforts of coming closer to G-d and returning to His Torah.
G-d is waiting for us to come back to Him, and what better time than the present, when we are being forced to realize that there is nothing of a physical nature that we can do to remedy the situation, and all that there is left to do is to return to our spiritual roots and to embrace the Torah and its commandments.
And maybe if we can exert that final effort of pushing ourselves back to G-d, then He will put an end to all the “birth pangs” and deliver the Messiah that we've all been waiting for.