Sunday, April 10, 2005


Isaiah 66:
6. A voice of tumult from the city, a voice from the
temple, the voice of the Lord rendering recompense to
his enemies.
7. Before she labors, she will give birth; before her
labor pains come, she will deliver a son.
8. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such
things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in
one day? or shall a nation be born in one moment,
as Zion labored, and gave birth to her children.
9. Shall I cause to break (the waters), and not
cause to give birth? says God; shall I that causes
birth, hold it back? says your God.
10. Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her,
all you who love her; rejoice for joy with her, all
you who mourn for her;
11. That you may suck, and be satisfied with the
breasts of her consolations; that you may drink
deeply, and be delighted with the abundance of her
12. For thus says the Lord, Behold, I will extend
peace to her like a river, and the glory of the
nations like a flowing stream; then shall you suck,
you shall be carried upon her sides, and be dandled
upon her knees.
13. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I
comfort you; and you shall be comforted in

The imagery of Isaiah in this passage is unusual; of the images of God in the Torah, it is the most female, envisioning God initially as a midwife holding the knees of Zion on the birthing stool, and further along as not simply a midwife, but as a comforting mother. These two related aspects of God are directly connected to the idea of birth as a simile of redemption. Within this metaphor are nestled two contradictory views: first, that the delivery of the nation comes painlessly and quickly, birth without labor. Yet, the next verses belie the suggestion of painlessness, continuing, "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" implying that, in fact, we are in
need of comforting, that the birth process has not been as painless as we thought it would be. The vision manages to incorporate the idea of suffering as necessary and productive of joy and simultaneously of suffering that is made more intense in order to shorten it dramatically: be patient, God says, your suffering is worthwhile, and afterwards, I , your Mother, will comfort you and you will be joyful.

Lev. 12: 2. Speak to the people of Israel,
saying, If a woman conceives, and bears a
male child; then she shall be unclean
seven days; as in the days of her
menstruation, shall she be unclean.

In Tazria, the rabbis find a vision of redemption through the image of birth that opens our portion; the midrash suggests that in our opening verses, the words, " If a woman conceives and gives birth, etc. (12: 2). alludes to a verse from psalms (Ps. 139:5), "You have formed for me [something] behind and [something] before." R. Johanan said: If a man merits it he inherits two worlds, this and the coming world.
Rather than the superfical reading as a levitical instruction manual to purifying rituals after birth, the rabbis understood the verses of our portion to have a deeper meaning, one which is revealed only by intense scrutiny of each verse as a discrete unit. The verse leads us to an understanding that formation is the formation not just of a fetus, but of ths world and the world to come: the world behind us and the world before us.
Birth is a passageway betwen two places, the liminal space where miracles happen. It is the moment of transformtion, here what was one thing beomes another, but this
transformation is not without difficulty. Thus when a woman bears, she shall be tamah for seven days. The process is one of utter physicality, of wrenching change, and of hesitation, in which thinking of God is difficult, even with God there as the midwife.
Isaiah's imagery links us to the understanding of God bearing Israel: as a mother bears a child. The imagery of childbearing as redemption of Israel is an especially appopriate one for the weeks leading up to Pesach. Passover is a holiday, after all, of birth. Israel emerges from mitzrayim, the narrow place, the birth canal, into the bright world, blinking furiously, at the changes we have just undergone and are further to undergo. Like an infant, we are howling at the coldness of the world, at all we now have to do for ourselves. The midrash on our verse says,

"How does the embryo lie in its mother's
womb?--It is folded up and lying like a
writing-tablet. Its head lies between its
knees, its two hands rest on its temples, its
two heels on its two buttocks; its mouth is
closed, but its navel is open; its food is
that which its mother eats, its drink is that
which its mother drinks, and it does not
discharge excrement lest [thereby] it
should kill its mother. When it issues
forth into the open world, that which had
been closed is opened, and that which had
been open is closed."

It is an astonishing miracle that as we emerge into the world, all that has been open is closed, and what was closed, now is open. Although I've never seen any discussion of it, I've often thought that the same brachah that one says after uing the bathroom, the asher yatzar brachah would also be the right one for laboring. The text of the blessing is found in the talmud in Brerachot (60b)

Blessed are You Who has formed
humanity in wisdom and created in him
many orifices and many cavities. It is
known before the throne of Your glory
that if one of them should be opened
[which should be closed] or one of them
closed [which should be opened] it would
be impossible to stand before
You...[blessed are You] Who heals all
flesh and does wonders

The words of this blessing echo those of the midrash: God opens what should be open, and closes what should be closed. The location of our openings and closings are essential. Even a small change would make us incapable of surviving.When God brings us forth into the world, God makes a miracle: everything that has been opened is closed and everything closed opens, so that we can survive in a world very different than the environment we had been in. The moment of birth in fact is one in which everthing is turned upside down. We are, in passing through the birth canal, literally reversed.
Pesach is a similar process: Go has midwived us into the world, and everything has changed. The world turned upside down! When we were brought forth through the birth canal of Egypt, we were made free. For the first time, we could stretch our limbs and open our eyes. God opened for us many new openings. But God also closed off for us things that were open. Slaves don't need to think about what to do today. They don't need to make difficult moral decisions, and they are not free to dedicate themselves to God or not. Their limbs are constricted like a fetus in the womb. When God brought us forth, in some ways we lost freedoms as well as gained them. Bringing us to Mount Sinai, as the Talmud relates, the mountain was suspended over our heads: we had to accept the Torah, or be buried at its foot. Freedom in the Torah is not "freedom from," but "freedom to." Freedom to serve
God, to submit to the yoke of mitzvot. Of course we can choose not to do so, but then we are like an infant trying to crawl back into the womb: it's too late, the miracle has been done for us: our openings are open, and our closings are closed. The process of growning up cannot be reversed.
When we take pesach seriously, in every generation each person looking upon themself as if they personally had been brought from Egypt, we should feel as though we have been squeezed through the birth canal once again: we are part of the process of the nation being born, and in that process is pain, and difficulty. We should feel as though the entire world has been transformed. We have gone from being helpless, subject to the winds of the world, without any control, to becoming moral agents. We have room to stretch our limbs and decide what to do. In those choices is sometimes pain and difficulty, but there is no redemption without it: Shall I cause to break (the waters), and not cause to give birth? says God; shall I that causes birth, hold it back? Once we are at the threshold, we cannot hold back: we must come through. But after the birth we will find joy, God is there to nurse us and comfort us.
And there is yet another miracle: despite all the trouble that we give to God, like a mother who loves Her child regardless of its behavior, God continues to cherish and comfort us. There is a tale of a king who asks why adam waas put to sleep when eve was created. His daughter, evidently wiser than he, takes a piece of meat from a slaughtered animal and prepares it in front of her father. When she serves it to him, he says, take it away, it makes me nauseated to look at it. His daughter triumphantly says,'There is your answer! if adam had seen the blooody mess that eve was made from, he would never have been able to love her."
And yet God knows (as the mishnah calls it) the smelly drop from which we were made. God knows the workings that were necessary to create the nation in the womb, and to deliver us to redemption. God knows the nausea of morning sickness as we began to grow and create something new, the discomfort and sleeplessness as we expanded the boundaries far beyond what God thought She could bear, the intense pain as we issued from the birth canal.
Over and over, we kicked and fought and disobeyed, and yet God continues to comfort
us. The miracle that we celebrate is not just our miracle, but God's: When a woman
conceives, and gives birth despite the pain of our redemption, God bore us, and continues to bear us. Like the mother who suffered through the pain of labor, God loves us anyway, and cherishes us.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I found this post just now, way belatedly, and wanted to thank you for it. This is gorgeous.