By Rabbi Phyllis Berman *
As we read from different passages of Torah -- especially from the book of Leviticus -- we confront some of the most difficult concepts in Torah: tahor and tamei.
In many English translations, those words have been translated as "pure" and "impure," or "clean" and "unclean," signifying that one is all good and one is all bad. Understood that way, the Torah has seemed to be condemning menstrual blood, semen, the birthing process - as impure. For many years I felt horrified, offended, every single time I came across the words.
The Tazria portion teaches me a new way to understand the words.
The first eight verses (Lev. 12: 1-8) deal with what happens to a woman who has given birth to a male or a female child -- how much time in each case she is to be separated from the community as tamei, before she rejoins the community as tahor.
Out of my experience as a mother, I remember very clearly that indeed there is a period of time right after you've given birth that you want and need to be separated from the community. Your community narrows down to the baby right in your arms and at your breast and there isn't, for some period of time, another world except for that child.
Then I began to think about other moments in our lives when that kind of close focused attention happens as well: when we're lucky enough to fall in love; when we're taken over by the ruah ha'kodesh (holy spirit); when we're utterly captivated by a creative process.
So I began to think that indeed there are two different kinds of holiness. There is the holiness of such complete concentration and narrow focus - like a laser beam of light - that we can't look out into the larger world, and there is the holiness where we are so at balance that we can see a much broader reality, handle multiple worlds simultaneously.
Then I began to understand a little bit more about these words, tahor and tamei. I began to think that tahor refers to those holy times in our lives when the focus is broad, when we can see the whole picture, and tamei is about that holy time when the focus is narrow and we can see only the immediate concern that's right at hand for us. ...