God spoke to Moshe, saying: 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. (Vayikra 12:1,2)
This week's Parsha is full of technical physiological phenomena. This theme is not new or unique; last week's Parsha also had much technical data related to physiology. While the last section of last week's Parsha dealt with the kosher and non-kosher species of animals, this week's Parsha deals with the species of man. Therefore, in a sense, this Parsha takes up where last week's left off.
R' Simlai said; Even as the formation of man took place after that of every cattle, beast and fowl when the world was created, so, too, the law regarding him is set forth after the law regarding cattle, beast and fowl (Vayikra Rabba: 14) [Rashi 12:2]
Rashi notes the sequence between the Parshiot, and the fact that man follows all the animals, here as well as in the story of Creation. Rashi's comment leads to two observations: First, that man was created after all the beasts, and second, that the laws enumerated here are somehow connected to that Creation. Regarding the first point the Midrash explains:
In the opinion of Resh Lakish [that is the meaning], since it is said, "And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters" (Bereisheet 1:2), i.e. the spirit of the Messianic King. If man acts meritoriously, they say to him: 'You preceded all the works of creation'; but if not, they say to him: 'A gnat preceded you, a snail preceded you.' [Midrash Rabbah – Vayikra 14:1]
The Midrash grapples with Man as a being of duality, made of both spiritual and physical stuff. The spiritual is related to The Creator and was the very first thought of creation – the purpose of the entire Creation. When Man manifests this spiritual capacity to its utmost, the world is completed and elevated, and the Messianic Age dawns. When Man sees himself as merely a part of the physical world, he must come to the sad realization that he does not take precedence over other species; in fact, he is the bottom of the proverbial totem pole.
With this observation, we return to the beginning of our Parsha. Man's frailty is most obvious in the newborn. Man's weakness and unimpressive nature are manifest to the greatest extent in the traits, skills and natural instincts of our young: As a species we are deficient, for insomuch as humans have no chance of survival on their own, they are inferior to all other forms of creation. The continuation of the species depends on the spirit of man and his (or, more accurately, her) ability to care for and nurture the young. Imagine the mortality of the extremely young in the wilderness; indeed, a gnat or snail has a greater chance of survival.
We are therefore called upon to view our existence as both independent and interdependent with the rest of nature. Physically, we possess a commonality with all other creatures; spiritually we can soar above them all. When we ignore our own spirituality, we sink below them all. Perhaps this observation is nowhere as apt as when compared to a particular species mentioned at the end of last week's Parsha. When enumerating the non-kosher animals and insects we are told of "creepy-crawly" species:
"And every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth shall be an abomination; it shall not be eaten. Everything that creeps on its belly (gachon)..." (Bereisheet 11:41,42)
Rashi identifies this with a familiar foe:
This is the serpent, and the expression "gachon" (belly) denotes bending low, so that the phrase means; that which walks bent down and fallen upon its belly. (Rashi 11:42)
Rashi's identification and description are interrelated and fascinating. The creature described as "an abomination" is the serpent of old, the slithering seducer who is reduced to crawling on its belly. Rashi goes further than a mere description of a species that crawls; it is a species that "bends low", which has "fallen". This is a creature that has been reduced. The key to this identification is the word gachon. When the serpent was cursed for his treachery he was told:
And God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, accursed are you beyond all the cattle and beyond all beasts of the field; upon your belly (gachoncha) shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life." (Bereisheet 3:14)
Rashi explains the curse:
It had feet but they were cut off. (Rashi 3:14)
The serpent was punished for the words it spoke to Eve. Until that point, the serpent had been a talking, walking creature; due to its rebellion, it was transformed and devolved into a creature that crawls on its belly. It had been superior to all the beasts and now was assigned the lowest status of all. The Midrash describes the fall of the serpent as being at the hands of the celestial Angels:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "Upon thy belly shalt thou go," ministering angels descended and cut off his hands and feet, and his cries resounded from one end of the world to the other. Thus the serpent comes to throw light upon the downfall of Babylonia and is itself illumined thereby: "The cry thereof shall go like the serpent's" (Yirmiyahu 46:22) (Midrash Rabbah – Bereisheet 20:5)
The serpent, who rebelled against God, is punished by the loyal servants of God, and serves as the symbol of other rebellious creatures who forfeit their tzelem Elokim, the image of God with which they were created.
In the continuation of God's curse of the serpent, the distinction between serpent and man is accentuated:
"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heel." (Bereisheet 3:15)
The serpent's head reaches only the lowest part of man; the serpent's status is reflected in his stature. He has been reduced and inverted. Interestingly, the curse allotted the serpent mentions the offspring of both species involved in the sin. It is in this same context of offspring that we see both the weakness and the greatness of man, a context underscored by the curse that befell Eve:
To the woman He said, "I will greatly increase your suffering and your childbearing; in pain shall you bear children..." (Bereisheet 3:16)
We thus return, full circle, to the opening verses of our Parsha. After all the other animals are dealt with, man is considered - on the physiological level, as a producer of offspring. Here, Man's dual nature comes to a head, for in this very same context, in the reproductive process itself, Man retains the ability to approximate God and create. In the Garden of Eden man imitated God and displayed his creative capacity in a different manner:
"And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the bird of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a help to match him." (Bereisheet 2:19,20)
Adam gives names to the animals; he defines and categorizes them. Adam's superiority is manifest. He belongs to a different species that uses words to create and define, emulating God's creative speech. The serpent uses words to seduce and corrupt. Consequently the Rabbis identify yet another curse suffered by the serpent.
R. Joshua of Siknin said in R. Levi's name: He cursed him with leprosy: for those scales [on the serpent] are leprosy. (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 20:4)
According to tradition leprosy is associated with misuse of speech.
"This shall be the law of the leper" (Mezora) means, of him that utters evil reports,' (Midrash Rabbah - Vayikra 16:6)
In our Parsha, the section that follows the laws of childbirth deals with leprosy:
"God spoke to Moshe and to Aaron, saying: If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a 's'eit,' or a 'sapachat,' or a 'baheret,' and it will become a 'tzara'at' affliction on the skin of his flesh; he shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim" (13:1,2)
Woman's punishment for eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden is the pain of childbirth; this punishment is sandwiched between the sin and the punishment of the serpent. For its misuse of speech, the serpent lost its power of speech and was destined to crawl. Our Parsha, which is directly related to the sin and punishment of Woman, follows on the heels of the laws of the kosher status of animals, which are enumerated only after Aharon's silence:
"God spoke to Aharon saying: Do not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die - this is an eternal decree for your generations: In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the contaminated and the pure." (Vayikra 10:9,10)
This description of making a distinction "between sacred and the profane, and between the contaminated and the pure" is what the sin in Eden was all about. There, man failed to distinguish between what was permitted and what was prohibited; indeed, we may say that in eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the first law of Kashrut was violated. Aharon falls silent after the death of his sons, rather than his power of speech to attack, to question, to obscure, and is immediately given the laws delineating the use of wine by those entrusted with the Temple service. Significantly, the Zohar (Bereishit 73a) identifies the forbidden fruit in Eden as the fruit of the vine - grapes.
Immediately following the guidelines for the kohanim are the laws of Kashrut, and the Torah returns to the same formula:
"This is the law of the animal, the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and for every creature that teems on the ground. To distinguish between the contaminated and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten." (Vayikra 11:46,47)
Here are the guidelines for pure and impure, the distinctions between permitted and prohibited. When man makes such distinctions, he achieves holiness. When man follows the lead of his spiritual aspect, he is superior to all of Creation, the apex of Creation. When man fails to recognize his spiritual gifts and merely follows physical instincts, he is inferior to all of Creation. When the creative powers of speech are used to blur the lines, obscure the distinctions between sacred and profane, the physical creature divorces itself from the tzelem Elokim. The serpent serves as a symbol of a creature that brings just such a fate upon itself. Only by making distinctions and creating holiness, by properly using the power of speech, does man maintain his stature and make manifest the spirit of God within him.