We all have bodies. We tend to think of our bodies in binary terms: healthy or sick, able or disabled, fat or thin, normal or abnormal. But as with most binaries, when we look closely at these claims we begin to see how these categories fail to truly capture our selves. I might appear healthy but also suffer from chronic illness. I might be called disabled but it’s the built environment that hinders my movement and not my body. I might appear thin and feel fat. Most binaries, however true they sound, are actually full of holes.
In the book of Leviticus, Tumah and Tahara (I’m choosing not to translate) is the defining binary. And “what makes us tam’eh ” and “how we can become tahor ” are the central questions. We are provided with a long list of things that will make us tam’eh: childbirth, skin disease, and discharge from sexual organs. Beyond our physical bodies, the very walls of our homes and fabric of our clothes are susceptible to tu’mah. It seems that the specter of tu’mah looms large for the ancient bodies with whom our texts are concerned. But as a modern reader I’m left wondering what Tu’mah actually is.
Parshat Tazria opens with the words:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֺתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא׃
Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman תַזְרִ֔יעַ (produces seed) and bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual unwellness.—
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out the connection between tazria – to yield seed – and tu’mah. The hi’fil form of the root זרע only occurs in two other places in the Torah – one of them being Genesis 1:11, the first herbage that G-d made was commanded to מזריע to produce seed, emphasizing that creation is designed with the potential to continually re-create itself.
What Rabbi Hirsch is implying is that Tu’mah is potential.
And in our parshiot Tu’mah (potential) is somehow resolved by bringing a hat’at, a sin offering. But what does it mean to resolve potential and why is it connected to sin?
In english, sin is a word full of judgement. It’s a word that triggers feelings of shame and badness. In Hebrew, as we are reminded at yom kippur, a חטא / het is not a binary good/bad act, it is missing the mark. It exists on a continuum of action, in time that continues to move forward and in realities that are continually birthed.
So when our parshiot connect Tu’mah and het / potential and missing the mark, I truly believe there is no final judgement being made. I’ll say it again because it is hard for us to internalize: there is no final judgement, good or bad, on potential energy.
A seed is a possibility, and het is a language for possibility that is moving in a direction. Direction can be towards degradation and it can be towards growth, but at no point have we ever fully arrived at one or the other. Growth and decay are intertwined and in nature they feed off of one another.
But we don’t only exist in nature – we also exist in culture. And in culture, we fear the truth of the universe, that life and death are interwoven and every moment is pregnant with possibility. So we might be inclined to say that sin is the tzora’at that goes untreated and consumes your walls in mold. Sin is avoiding going to the doctor because you “don’t have time.”
But what is so radical about our tradition is that bringing a hat’at is a ritual that tries to deal with the potential that is always there. The potential that isn’t necessarily morally bad or good, but that can lead towards hurt or towards healing. Bringing a hat’at marks a moment where you move out of potential and into intention, I’ve cleaned the walls, I’ve survived childbirth, I’ve healed from illness… these things, or things like them, will come again, but right now I’m moving forward.
Our Torah sees het as a fact of life. Everything that is born in this world is born of a germ/a seed/a possibility. To bring a hat’at is to take ownership of an opportunity to reorient
With every possibility there is an opportunity to repair.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) relates how G-d, when creating humans, was challenged by the angels on account of human’s destructive nature.
When history arrived at the time of the people of the generation of the flood and the people of the generation of the dispersion, i.e., the Tower of Babel, whose actions were ruinous, the angels said before God: Master of the Universe, didn’t the first set of angels speak appropriately before You, that human beings are not worthy of having been created? God said to them concerning humanity: “Even to your old age I am the same; and even to hoar hairs will I suffer you; I have made and I will bear; and I will carry, and I will deliver you” (Isaiah 46:4).
G-d knows our potential to grow and to destroy, and still G-d created us. “I have made and I will bear; and I will carry, and I will deliver you.”
We are not created Good or Bad, nor do we become good or bad. We are always potential. Religion, prayer, and community can (at best) be tools for checking in with our intentions, and beyond, G-d walks with us as we all learn to see that the project of humanity is to learn how to grow and how to connect.