Speak to the children of Israel, saying: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be tameh for seven days… If she gives birth to a female, she shall be tameh for two weeks. (Vayikra 12: 2, 5)
Tumah (ritual impurity) is a spiritual status that impacts a person’s involvement in various areas of Jewish life. Widely misunderstood (and often mistranslated as ‘unclean’), tumah is a deficit of sorts – generally associated with death or contact with other spiritually impure objects or people.
On the face of it, it seems odd that the Torah would ascribe a spiritual deficit to childbirth – a natural and especially beautiful event. The law is that the mother is impure for only seven days when a male is born and fourteen days when a female is born, which seems even more perplexing.
Citing a teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk 1787-1859), Rabbi Yissochar Frand explains that this impression stems from a misunderstanding of tumah. Contrary to common belief, tumah is not the flip side of kedusha (sanctity or holiness). Instead, kedusha is a spiritual force that is present when man is most similar to G-d – when he is a potential creator. Tumah represents the vacuum that is created when that potential is removed.
While alive, the human being is holy; he is a power-house of creative potential. When he dies, that potential ceases and tumah sets in. A human corpse, in fact, acquires the highest degree of tumah precisely because the void is so great. A woman during pregnancy is most similar to G-d and, in a sense, is at the peak of sanctity. She is not only a potential creator; she is a creator in the literal sense of the word. Once the child is born however, the woman returns to being a regular human being. The sudden absence of her creative potential creates a void only to be filled with tumah.
With this insight, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743), author of the Ohr haChaim, explains the longer period of impurity after the birth of a girl. When a woman is pregnant with a girl, an emerging creator, her degree of sanctity is at an all-time high. The void, or tumah, created when she is no longer pregnant is thus proportionally larger than the vacuum created following the birth of a boy.
The laws of tumah teach us an important lesson about our own sanctity. There is a well-known metaphor that the life of a Jew is like going up a ‘down’ escalator. To retain our sanctity, we must always strive to fulfill more mitzvot and seize every opportunity for spiritual growth. Neglecting such occasions may involve more than just “missing an opportunity.” It may be an invitation for spiritual decline.
Rabbi Yosef Gutfarb of Jerusalem was always careful to pray with a minyan (quorum). One night, he returned home at 3 am and realized that he hadn’t prayed the evening services. He quickly headed to Zichron Moshe, a well-known Jerusalem synagogue with a reputation for round-the-clock “minyanim.” When he arrived, he was dismayed to find only one other congregant – eight short for a minyan! Undeterred, Rabbi Gutfarb called a local taxi company and ordered eight taxis to the synagogue, stressing to the dispatcher that they all be Israeli drivers. As each taxi arrived, Rabbi Gutfarb instructed each driver to turn on his meter and join him inside for the evening services. At the conclusion of the prayers, the Rabbi offered payment and profusely thanked each of the taxi drivers for enabling him to maintain his commitment to praying with a minyan.
Rabbi Gutfarb was clearly not obligated to go to such lengths and could have easily justified praying at home. He understood however how significant it was to maintain his spiritual standard. Rather than availing himself of a legitimate “pass” and potential spiritual void, he went the extra mile.
While the Rabbi’s approach may seem beyond our reach, we would do well to follow his lead and make sure to seize every opportunity for spiritual involvement.
(Source: Partners In Torah by by Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz)