Birth Pangs

The other day, I got a sample of Pampers in the mail. It doesn't happen very often now, fortunately. For a while there, almost every day brought free diapers, coupons for baby food, baby lotion, baby photographs. I passed them on to my sister, who has a year-old son, and told myself that it's not their fault. How could they know, after all? It's just that I'm on some kind of list — a “new mothers” list, probably through my doctor's office — and so they keep sending me these products, products I'd rather not think about just now.

It happens to people all the time. That's one of the things you learn when it happens to you. Suddenly, you're part of a new sisterhood, a new brotherhood — people who have gone through a miscarriage, lost a baby, suffered a stillbirth. You had no idea how many people around you had such an experience, because most of them never said a word. Only now, when it happens to you, do they let you in on their secret.

They tell you about their losses because they want you to know they understand. They don't think you're ridiculous for mourning over something that wasn't even really a baby — just a coiled-up ball of life, maybe half an inch long. Except that, for you, of course, it was a baby, and it belonged to you, and you loved it. They understand the crushing sense of failure, and the guilt, and the questions that you know are irrational and pointless but you ask yourself anyway: Did I do something wrong? Could I have prevented this if I'd taken better care of myself, stayed off my feet, cut down on stress?

Later, when the pain eases and you stop tormenting yourself with questions, you find yourself dwelling on one simple idea: how many people have walked this path before me. How very common pregnancy loss is, and what a miracle it is to carry a healthy baby to term.

“Women don't need to lay tefillin,” a traditional Jew once said to me. “Your womb is your tefillin. Your power to nurture new life within your body is what connects you to God.”

If we come to this week's portion expecting a lyrical celebration of women's special bond with the Creator through the miracle of childbirth, we may be sorely disappointed. Parashat Tazria spells out all that the Torah has to say about rituals for the new mother — eight verses in all. For more than a month, she must undergo “blood purification,” forbidden to touch any sacred object or enter the holy sanctuary. After her period of separation, the woman brings two sacrifices — a burnt offering and a sin offering — and she is then reintegrated into the community (Leviticus 12:1-8).

Nothing of the joy and wonder of childbirth seems to rise up from this brief legal passage; it speaks instead of ritual impurity, isolation, purgation. But under the dry, compressed language courses a river of emotion. The emergence of a new human being is awesome, tremendous — a mysterious, soul-shattering event. Surrounded by blood taboos whose precise meaning we can no longer decode, childbirth in the Torah is fraught with danger, electric with the energy of life and death, touched by the sacred. It changes a new mother permanently — separates her from who she was, and from all those around her. For a while, she withdraws, dazed and disoriented, from normal life; her world consists of nothing but the baby. Only gradually does she return to herself and her community. Spiritual, psychological and cultic processes merge in the Torah's ritual of reintegration.

At the tail end of the 20th century, human reproduction has become “domesticated” — subject to scientific understanding and manipulation. But for the Torah, birth retains its primal strangeness and elemental power; it is outside the human domain; it belongs to the Holy One.

We are taught: “One must offer a blessing over the bad just as one offers a blessing over what is good” (Mishna Berachot 9:5). I'm still wondering what blessing can come from the loss of a baby. But maybe pain, as well as joy, can awaken us to the miracle of birth. Maybe if we learn how often things go wrong with the intricate, elegant process by which life comes into the world, we'll cherish, all the more, those times when everything goes blessedly, stupendously right.

Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.