Atonement: For a Mitzvah?!

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Tazriah, takes up issues concerning childbirth. This event confers a state of Tumah (ritual impurity) on the new mother and requires that after the passage of some time, she brings a burnt-offering and a sin-offering on the Altar of the Temple.

Many have puzzled over the necessity for the Chatat (sin-offering) which is usually mandated when one has committed a serious Biblical prohibition. What sin has been committed by the woman who has endured the discomforts of pregnancy and the travails of childbirth in order to bring a new human into existence? Hasn’t this lady performed a great Mitzvah, and is she not deserving of a significant reward? But instead she must atone for sin?

The Rabbis explain that in the throes of labor, when the pain was excruciating, she cursed her husband and vowed not to resume marital relations with him. This, they aver, is the transgression for which atonement must now be made.

But there are obvious difficulties with this explanation. Certainly, not every birthing mother utters curses nor makes these vows; and even if one did, it would not be binding since it was taken under extreme duress. Therefore, we cannot take the words of the Rabbis in their literal sense.

To resolve this puzzle, we must understand that Judaism places the Commandment to honor one’s father and mother in the category of Mitzvot that are “between man and G-d.” One might have thought that honoring parents constitutes an obligation that one has to his fellow man, but it is squarely placed inside of the first five commandments, which are laws pertaining to one’s relationship with Hashem. Hence, we must conclude that in respecting one’s parents, one is displaying reverence to the Creator. How so?

The Rabbis say that there are three partners in the creation of an individual, the mother, father and G-d. That is because the human is a combination of body and soul. The mother and father provide one’s biological constitution. However, the divine soul is a gift from Hashem.

So, in being respectful of one’s parents one is acknowledging and revering the Supreme Parent, the Creator of the universe. While it is vitally important for the child to be cognizant of this, it is equally so for the parents. They must regard the child as a gift from G-d to be raised to live the kind of life that finds favor in His eyes.

The mother has played the most significant role in the task of bringing the child into the world. Consequently, she is most apt to regard the child as her personal possession. (In this regard, one should note that there is no force on earth more powerful than the maternal instinct.) It is thus necessary that the mother reconnect with Hashem in order to invoke His partnership in the upbringing of this child.

Accordingly, she comes before Hashem in the Holy Temple and brings a burnt-offering which proclaims that everything comes from Him, including the new infant she was privileged to bear. She then sacrifices a sin-offering to atone for any emotional distortions that she might have succumbed to, because of the extreme suffering of the pregnancy and labor she may have endured.

She seeks to regain her spiritual balance by rejecting any sinful thoughts and attitudes that may have arisen in the course of her noble endeavor to bring new life into the world. Likewise, she reaffirms that the aim of her pregnancy is to mother a child who would perfect his or her divine soul and live a life that will sanctify the Name of G-d in His world.

Shabbat Shalom.