This week’s Torah portion deals with some of the different things that make a person tamei (the noun form is tumah) and tahor (the noun form istaharah). These words are often translated as clean/unclean or pure/impure, but that isn’t really what they mean. One who is tahor is ritually fit to appear in the Temple and one is tamei is not. What things make someone tamei? In general, the things that make a person tamei involve contact with the liminal forces that divide life and death – blood, semen, birth, death. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “these categories flow from the contrast between G-d and human beings. G-d is immortal, humans are mortal. G-d is spiritual, humans are also physical… Conditions that render a person tamei are those that testify to our mortality and physicality.”
We move in our lives through moments of tedium and of transcendence, between birth and death, sickness and health – we are constantly navigating a river of emotion and action, intellectual analysis, and gut feeling. None of those are unholy, but each has its place. We must exercise to be healthy, but we don’t bring our weights and gym shorts to a dinner party. Ecclesiastes wrote, “to everything there is a season,” and sometimes we are so eager to return to our daily lives, that we don’t give ourselves enough time to live in the tamei state – to immerse in the liminal moment that life has served up and then indeed to transition back. Why do we think this can or should be instantaneous?
Today when a healthy woman gives birth to a healthy child, she is discharged from the hospital in the next day or two and is expected to be up and about very shortly thereafter. The Torah commands her, though, to take some time to live in the experience that she has undergone. Rabbi Malka Drucker wrote, “In a time when women give birth on Monday, go home Tuesday and have a dinner party Thursday, Tazria gives us permission to enter the fluid, deep transcendence that giving birth offers us. A child is born, a woman becomes a joyful mother, and G-d is never so near. We are invited to withdraw briefly from the chatter and flow of everyday life to shake our heads and exclaim, “G-d is in this place and I’m staying here for a while!”
Tumah and Tahorah are part of the cycle of our humanity. The judgement inherent in the English translations of these words have lead us to dismiss the concepts entirely when there may be rich lessons contained therein. If we look at tumah and tahorah through the lens of sacred time, we can ask ourselves whether we are taking enough time to care for ourselves in our own liminal moments and to spiritually transition out and prepare to rejoin our sacred communities.
Cantor Sally Neff