Becoming a mother is an education in both sides of the human body: the beautiful and the gross.
On one hand, there’s nothing like the sweetness of a naked baby after a bath, wrapped up in a big towel. Or watching a little one learn to walk, or jump. (I didn’t realize jumping was its own developmental benchmark until Sylvie got there last week, and it’s amazing watching her lift her little body off the earth with her own power–and giggle–and do it again.)
At the same time, among all that beauty, as the mother of a young child I’m up close and personal with multiple bodily fluids every single day. I’m talking poop, pee, snot, tears, rinse, repeat. And that’s on a good day.
It’s not just the little bodies, either. There’s also my own.
On one hand, what could be more transcendent than serving as a physical vessel for life, carrying a brand new human safely through 10 months of growing from a tiny speck to a real live baby?
On the other hand, I was shocked by how physically rough, painful and messy the postpartum weeks were for me. And once I’d healed from the C-section, there was the weight I’d gained during pregnancy, which didn’t magically melt away as I’d planned. Physically, the transition to motherhood was a pretty wild ride.
Isn’t all this body talk a little graphic for a discussion of Torah?
Actually, no. The Torah is often surprisingly matter-of-fact about the sort of gross bodily details we usually would avoid in polite conversation. And this week’s portion, Tazria, specifically starts off by talking about a post-partum mother: comparing her state to menstruation, and detailing how many days she is ritually impure (sometimes translated “unclean,” but actually a more complicated and less offensive concept).
From these tasty details, the Torah moves on to another bodily issue: tzaraat, or Biblical leprosy. This isn’t medical leprosy as we know it today; instead, it’s a spiritual sickness that affects men, women, and even houses and clothes. It starts off internally and then manifests in rashes, ingrown hairs, and other weird growths described in rather disgusting detail in this portion.
This year, it occurs to me reading Tazria is sort of like sitting in a room full of new mothers. Strangers or old friends, it didn’t matter…among the coos and exclamations of baby cuteness, we inevitably ended up talking about labor, milk supply, breast infections, pain, and blood.
It turns out this is something the Torah and mothers have in common. We are not afraid to talk directly about the grosser parts of physical existence.
Of course, the Torah (and mothers) also know that bodies can be gorgeous. Back in Genesis, when Rebecca saw Isaac for the first time, she promptly fell off her camel; that’s how handsome he was. And who hasn’t had that moment of seeing someone across the room and being bowled over by pure physical beauty?
But as this week’s portion reminds us, that’s only half the story. As physical beings, we are always in transition. We are part of an organic, natural cycle. We blossom, we wane; we are born, we give birth, we die; our bodies tear and heal, are pushed and recover, weaken and strengthen.
As a mom, the messy parts of living in a body are impossible to ignore. And although I love the story of Rebecca and Isaac, I also love that the Torah talks directly about the gross stuff, from post-partum bleeding to weird skin diseases. I find this to be a compassionate approach for dealing with this complicated physical life. Rather than pretend the gross stuff doesn’t exist, Torah gives us a way to deal with it. Even if we don’t follow the ancient rituals, we can look to them for what they teach. Be patient. Say a prayer. Take a bath. Take care of yourself. Give it time.
Because the beauty comes and goes and comes back again; this is part of living in a body. And we mothers are learning the lessons of Tazria every day, right there in between the miracles and the poop.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.