Renewal in the Service of G-d Leads to Holiness of the Home
On the verse that states, “If a woman conceives [from the root ‘to sow’] and bears a male child” (Leviticus 12:2), the Zohar raises the following question: “Does she give birth once she conceives? It depends on pregnancy, and the verse should have said, ‘If a woman becomes pregnant and gives birth’ ” (Zohar III:42b). We must also ask why conception is mentioned here, rather than simply giving birth.
We shall try to explain this as best possible, which will require the following introduction:
A man must renew himself in his service of G-d each day by ridding himself of the effects of his negative past, doing so in order to not get worse. He must not wait until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; he must renew himself each day, as in the verse: “They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). At that point one can become another person, even if his intentions are not perfect – and even more so if they are – for once a person serves G-d, even for egotistical reasons, he ends up serving Him for unselfish reasons (Pesachim 50b). This transformation can be extraordinary. For example, the Gemara recounts that when Resh Lakish saw Rabbi Yochanan from afar, he mistook him for a woman and jumped into the Jordan River after him. When he saw Rabbi Yochanan up close, he said to him, “Your beauty should be for women.” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “If you repent, I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.” Resh Lakish immediately accepted, and at that point “he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not” (Bava Metzia 84a). Rabbi Yochanan explained to him that this was because he had accepted to study the Torah, and Torah study saps men’s strength.
This remarkable story shows just to what point a person can change. Rabbi Yochanan in fact gave his sister in marriage to Resh Lakish, who as we know was previously the leader of a band of armed robbers and a great sinner. Rabbi Yochanan did not follow the advice of always marrying one’s daughter to a Talmid Chacham (Pesachim 49b), but on the contrary he acted like one who marries his daughter to an ignoramus, of whom it is said: “Whoever marries his daughter to an ignoramus is as though he bound and laid her before a lion” (ibid.). Why did Rabbi Yochanan do this? It is because he knew that impurity can transform itself into holiness in a single instant, even if a person’s reasons are at first unworthy and everything he does is only for show. In fact we see that afterwards, Resh Lakish began to study Torah without delay.
When Resh Lakish saw that Rabbi Yochanan was giving his sister to him in marriage (and at great personal risk, since it was as if he was placing her before a lion), but only on condition that he take the yoke of Torah upon himself, he quickly understood that the life he was leading was bringing him nowhere. Resh Lakish realized that it would only have meaning if he took to the path of Torah. It was clear to him that only under these conditions would Rabbi Yochanan agree to give him his sister in marriage. He thus changed from being a leader of a band of armed robbers to being a righteous man, to the point that he became the student and study partner of Rabbi Yochanan himself. For his part, Rabbi Yochanan did not make a mistake in trusting Resh Lakish, even if his motives were at first far from pure. This is because Rabbi Yochanan knew that a man can completely change his life and become conscious of his Creator’s existence.
When we realize that a man should renew himself each day, we more clearly understand the statement, “Whoever has no wife has no joy” (Zohar 182a). Why is that the case? It is because the renewal of each day brings joy to a man’s heart. For example, when we purchase new clothes and put them on, the joy we feel justifies us reciting the blessing Shecheyanu (Berachot 60a). One who constantly renews himself spends his entire life in joy, whereas routine brings about boredom. A man who has no wife has no source of renewal; he cannot accomplish the mitzvah of having children. He has no one to speak to, and many mitzvot that rejoice a man (as it is written, “The statutes of the L-RD are right, rejoicing the heart” [Psalms 19:9]) are absent from his life. This is especially true if his wife supports him in Torah study (as well as in everyday life), and guides their children in Torah (Sotah 21a). If a man is without a wife, he has neither renewal nor joy.
In addition, by nature a man seeks to dominate others, particularly his wife, as it is written: “He shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). However when he marries, he yearns for a tranquil family life and learns to yield to his wife and love her. This constitutes great progress in the service of G-d – modifying one’s natural tendency to dominate – without mentioning the fact that his wife helps him to submit to G-d and others. For her part, a woman by nature does not like being told what to do, yet when she marries she obeys her husband and does what he wants, being an exemplary wife who does her husband’s will (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 9), and she prefers her husband’s opinion over her own. By progressing in this way, she also renews herself.
This subject of renewal is dealt with concerning the Jewish women at the exodus from Egypt. The Sages have said that the Children of Israel were delivered from Egypt due to the merit of that generation’s righteous women (Sotah 11b). Furthermore, their refusal to give their earrings to make the golden calf earned them Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month), which for them is like a holiday when they must not do heavy work (Perkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 43). Now we know that women are attached to their jewelry, which is why we might think that this was the reason for their refusal to part with it. This is why the Torah tells us that when it came to building the Sanctuary, the opposite occurred: The women brought more than was needed, as it is written: “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work” (Exodus 36:5). The situation was such that Moses had to proclaim within the camp that they were to stop bringing things, as it is stated: “Let neither man nor woman do any more work for the offering of the Sanctuary” (v.6).
We therefore see that the women went completely against their nature by giving up their beloved jewelry for the Sanctuary (but not for the golden calf). Since this earned them Rosh Chodesh, when they must abstain from heavy work in order to rest and reflect, this gives them even more time to renew themselves, earning them a great reward for that day. Moreover, Rosh Chodesh atones for sins, as we say in the Musaf prayer: “You have given Rosh Chodesh days to Your people, a time of atonement for all their descendants.” We can therefore benefit from the holiness of this day to renew ourselves as well, as it is written: “Your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalms 103:5).
A man also renews himself on Shabbat, in the image of Creation, and it is from Shabbat that the six days receive their blessing (Zohar I:75b; II:63b). This is especially true when a man goes to the mikveh on Friday, for at that point he becomes someone else. I have already said that one who prepares for Shabbat solely to have a vacation in which to eat, drink, and rest has overlooked the main thing – the spice named Shabbat (see Shabbat 119a) – meaning the holiness of the day. When we neglect it, we see Shabbat exactly as the other days of the week, whereas we should sense the difference between sacred and profane, perceiving an opportunity for renewal. It is only then that we will experience it in pleasure and obtain an additional soul (Beitzah 16a). At that point, even the simple act of eating or drinking will be a foretaste of the World to Come, which is exactly like a renewal of body and soul, for even though we can actually renew ourselves each day, this is particularly true of Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh.
I believe that in the same way that the world is renewed each day, as we say in our prayers (“He renews each day, continuously, the work of Creation”), man – who is a microcosm of Creation (Zohar I:90b) – must do the same. Even if at first glance the universe seems to be getting older, in reality it does not stop renewing itself, just as everyone must do each day, even if he is no longer very young.
A good example of this can be found in the words that we speak on Shabbat. Concerning G-d it is stated: “By the word of the L-RD were the heavens made” (Psalms 33:6). This is because G-d created the world with words (Perkei Avoth 5:1), without having to resort to action. However with the arrival of Shabbat, it is nevertheless stated: “He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made” (Genesis 2:2), and “He rested the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). The Zohar affirms that He rested even from speaking (Zohar I:117b). Therefore how much more should man – who is but flesh and blood, and who works during the week to earn a living – rest on Shabbat, including from speech. It is furthermore written, “[Cease] speaking of useless matters” (Isaiah 58:13), which means that the way we speak on Shabbat should not be the same as during the week (Shabbat 113b). Man is greatly renewed by not working or even uttering useless words on Shabbat. A person should use his mouth to speak words of Torah, following the injunction to make one’s Shabbat a day that is entirely Torah (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 1). Under such conditions, a person can resemble his Creator and bring about wonders with his mouth and words, as at the time of Creation. This is because the Tzaddik has the power to annul Divine decrees (Moed Katan 16b). It is possible that this is the reason why many Tzaddikim refrain from speaking on Shabbat (for more on this subject, consult the book Shabbat HaMalka).
Everything that we have said up to now allows us to better understand our parsha. As we know, a woman helps her husband to renew himself each day, as well as during Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, for these are times when she herself is particularly renewed. Furthermore, the success of the home lies mainly in the hands of the woman, as Rabbi Akiva said to his disciples: “Leave her alone, mine and yours are hers” (Ketubot 63a). Consequently, she is like one who “sows” a mitzvah, for education is an act of sowing. Sowing means the preparation of a mitzvah within the framework of family purity, by watching over children in purity (for if it was sufficient just to have children, there are many who do so). Renewing the holiness of the home on a daily basis constitutes her conception. This is why it is written, “If a woman conceives [‘sows’]” without pregnancy being mentioned. This is because it does not depend on pregnancy in any way, but on conception, on the renewal of a woman’s holiness. As a reward, G-d gives her a son, which represents both a change (since she did not bear a female, like herself) and a gift (since this son will learn Torah and wear Tefillin). In fact G-d grants a great reward to a Jewish home, a reward commensurate with our deeds of kindness and according to an overall scale, for as soon as we are married we experience daily change and renewal. A non-Jewish home functions solely in accordance with nature, without any renewal. The verses of our parsha all converge in this sense.
All this allows us to understand the connection between Parah Tazria and Parsha Metzora, which are found together in the Torah. Leprosy comes, as we know, as a punishment for slander and arrogance (Arachin 15b). Our Sages have said that the word metzora (“leper”) is like motzi ra (“who brings up evil” – Arachin 15b, Vayikra Rabba 16:1). A single word of slander can bring about thousands of evil words, since everyone tries to outdo the other in what he said. Thus the expression, “If a woman conceives [‘sows’]” refers back to the fact that by needlessly chatting, a woman sows the seeds of slander, and leprosy strikes both her and her husband, who let himself get ensnared into speaking as well. By slandering someone, she can turn him into a new person – since that person’s sins will be forgiven (Chafetz Chaim 87) – and he becomes like a newborn again. This is the meaning of, “and [she] bears a male child.” She then becomes impure for seven days, which signifies that she can ruin her entire life, for seven days represent the 70 different facets of person’s life (see Psalms 90:10). [Note: We find an allusion to this in the fact that the numerical value of tazria is the same as the expression zeh hu be’lashon harah (“it is by forbidden speech”)]. On the other hand, if a woman is careful about what she says, she will benefit the Jewish people, renewing herself in purity and holiness.
How should we conduct ourselves?
The desire to renew ourselves in the service of G-d depends on the holiness and purity of the home. In effect a woman sows mitzvot, thus preparing the way for holiness. We achieve purity only through renewal and by refraining from speaking ill of others. If we keep away from all forbidden speech, we can achieve holiness for our entire lives.