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Parashat Tazri'a: When I Went Out To Greet You, I Found You Coming Toward Me

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion


ParAshat Tazri'a


When I went out to Greet You, I found you coming toward me

Rav Itamar Eldar



            At the beginning of our parasha, we read about the laws governing a woman after childbirth.  The laws vary depending upon whether the woman gave birth to a male child or a female child:


And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying, If a woman has conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean.  And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.  And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days: she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are fulfilled.  But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days.  And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, in the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest: who shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood.  This is the Torah for her that has born a male or a female.  And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons;: the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.  (Vayikra 12:1-8)


            The halakhic distinction regarding ritual purity and impurity between the birth of a male and the birth of a female is not merely a technical matter, but rather it rests on the essential difference that exists in general between males and females.




            At the very beginning of the Torah, we find the following description of the creation of man:


And God said, Let us make Mankind in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.  So God created Mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  (Bereishit 1:26-27)


            Many commentators have grappled with the expression: "in Our image, after Our likeness." It seems, however, that this expression is explained already in the verses themselves: "In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Scripture teaches us that this duality of man, his being split between male and female, constitutes the image of God given to man, and it is in this way that man resembles God.


            We learn about the nature of this duality in man through the "mystery of the sawing" discussed already by Chazal in the framework of their attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction between the first chapter of Bereishit, which implies that the male and the female were created as one, and the second chapter, which implies that the man was created first, and only afterwards was a portion of his body removed, from which the first woman was fashioned:


R. Yirmiya ben Elazar said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, he created him as a hermaphrodite.  This is what it says: "Male and female He created them." R. Shemuel bar Nachman said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He created him two-faced, sawed him apart, and gave him two backs, a back on this side and a back on that side.  An objection was raised against him: Surely it is written: "And He took one of his tzela'ot" (Bereishit 2:21).  He said to them: Of his two sides.  This is what it says (Shemot 26:20): "And for the second tzela of the tabernacle" – which we translate as "And for the second side of the tabernacle." (Bereishit Rabba 8:1)


            Chazal understand that we are not dealing here with a contradiction, but rather with two stages: When man and woman were first created, they were joined back to back, and in chapter 2, they were separated into two.[1] This separation, the kabbalists understood, was a temporary separation, sort of "a descent for the sake of ascent," for surely we have been promised "That is why a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife: and they become one flesh" (Bereishit 2:24).


            The joining of man and his wife during coupling constitutes renewed connection, one that is even stronger than the original connection before they were separated, for now they are joined "face to face," whereas before they had been connected "back to back."


            The sawing apart, then, brought man and woman from a state of "turning one's back" to a state of "direct view." Kabbala and Chassidut teach us that this principle of sawing apart and separating in order to bring about higher unity is one of the foundations of the world.  Even God Himself operates in this manner.  Thus writes R. Kalonymus Epstein of Cracow:


The verse states: "And the Lord God made the side." And Chazal have expounded: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, created him two-faced, and afterwards He sawed him apart.  The purpose of the sawing to which we entirely direct ourselves on all of the awesome days is that coupling should be face to face.  We find in the writings of the Ari z"l that had, God forbid, the initial creation been face to face, there would have been no standing [to the world], God forbid.  The reason is also found there but it is concealed.  We must explain the reason.  For all the worlds have an inner and an outer aspect.  But the outer aspect of the supreme world is the inner aspect of the world below it.  And similarly from one world to the next, until the end of all worlds.  And the actions of the tzadikim prove this, as we see with our own eyes that their material eating, drinking and speaking involves greater intentions than our Torah and prayer.  Now in the truly inner aspect, externals cannot take hold; it is only in the outer aspects of the worlds that externals take hold.  This too we see when two lovers come together to rejoice, they sit face to face.  For joy is from the form, that is, from the inner aspects that rest on the face and the form that constitutes the image of God, for there are found the forehead, the eyes, the beard, and the like.  It is therefore impossible that the externals should take hold there.  But in the rear there are almost no distinct organs, and the externals can take hold there, God forbid.  Therefore, had the initial creation been face to face, and had there been rear sides, then the externals would have taken great hold to the point that there would have been no standing [to the world], God forbid.  Therefore, [man] was created two-faced, and back to back, so that there should be no rear sides, and no place for the externals to take hold.  And it is this that we await when there will be a clarification of the worlds, when He, blessed be He, will find favor, and then the externals will be nullified (as the verse states: "And I shall remove the spirit of uncleanness from the earth"), and coupling will be face to face.  Now in Egypt the externals had such great hold that it was impossible to leave the exile and merit the parting of the sea of Suf.  It was only that the Holy One, blessed be He, in His great lovingkindness, acted for His own sake, and the inner aspects of His Godliness appeared to them from Atika Kadisha where there is not even the aspect of male and female.  And He bestowed the inner aspects of His Godliness even on the rear parts, and thus the hold of the externals disappeared even from the rear parts, and the sea parted for them.  (Ma'or va-Shemesh, Beshalach)


            The author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh teaches us that the world that we live in is a world of separation, and that already at the time of creation, the world's unity was sawn apart, and that from that time on the world has been striving for the renewed unity of "face to face." He also explains the necessity of creating a world of "back to back," which leads to sawing apart, in order to elevate the connection to a higher level.  The externals are able to take hold, argues the Ma'or va-Shemesh, when the connection is face to face.  The rear side is the place where the externals are able to take hold.  Put simply, the direction towards which we turn our backs is our weakest point, the place where trouble will begin.


            R. Kalonymus portrays two arenas of action.  The one is the inner circle created between male and female, between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhina.  This is the inner circle in which the male unites with the female.  The second is all that surrounds the inner circle, the external world.  There is located the exit from the closed circle to the open expanse, the exit from concentration, unity, and refined essence, to multiplicity, generality and materiality.


            When the male and female join together face to face, the "inner circle" is in full unity, but they both turn their backs to what is behind them, to the external world.  They pay no attention to it, for they concentrate entirely one on the other.  This is the time that the "externals" act, when the inner world is distracted, for it is in the rear that the externals find a place to take hold.


            R. Kalonymus teaches us that in a world where the externals are many, a person must look at them directly.  A back to back connection requires a waiver of complete and absolute concentration in holiness and unity, but it allows a person to direct his eyes and his mind to the world that surrounds him, to guard against it on one level, and to elevate it to its source on another.  Only in a repaired world where the externals will also turn into inner light, from garment to essence, will it be possible once again to connect face to face, without having to be concerned about turning one's back to anything.  Reconnecting what had become disconnected is possible in a world in which matter and kelipot do not threaten to take hold of holiness and bring it down.


            We hear the echo of this sawing whenever we attempt "to unite the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shekhina" ("le-shem yichud").  [2] We wish to reconnect what had become separated, a desire which had it not been formulated by the great authorities of Israel, we would not be able to do so.  We try to unite the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shekhina, which has been sent into exile.


            The Shekhina is found throughout creation, but primarily in man:


"Rabbi Levi said: This may be likened to a provincial who was married to the daughter of a king.  Even if he feeds her with every royal delicacy, he will not fulfill his obligation.  Why? Because she is the daughter of a king.  So too whatever a person does for his soul, he does not fulfill his obligation.  Why? Because it is from above." The explanation of this matter is that this soul, wich is from above but exists in the lower world, always yearns for the Torah and the mitzvot, since it is in the lower world.  And this is regarded as a deficiency in its level, for it is a Godly essence from above existing in the lower world.  And anything that is deficient yearns for perfection, and the Torah and mitzvot are perfection for the soul, and so the soul yearns for the Torah and the mitzvot in order to be actualized and perfect… That which he likens it to the daughter of a king who was married to a provincial, and though he gives her every delicacy in the world, he does not fulfill his obligation, because she is the daughter of a king, who has connected herself to this provincial.  And so she will always be lacking while she is with this provincial, and no matter what he gives her, in the end she is with this provincial who is not her mate.  And therefore he cannot do as is appropriate for her, she being the daughter of a king, for in any event she is connected to a provincial, and not to a king, and therefore he does not fulfill his obligation regarding her.  And similarly since the soul is from above, even though the mitzvot and the Torah are for it an exit to perfection, nevertheless since it exists in the lower world in the body of man and it is a separate essence from the upper world, it will not receive perfection.  Therefore it is not satisfied by the mitzvot and it remains in potentia as long as it remains with the body.  This is what I wanted to explain.  (Maharal, Tif'eret Yisra'el 3)


            While R. Levi's wonderful parable does not deal with a man and a woman, but rather with a king and his daughter, the principle is one and the same.  We are dealing with masculine and feminine elements that have become separated one from the other, and from the moment of separation there is a mutual yearning for renewed unity.[3] This mutual yearning appears in the world in the form of two contradictory movements.  The yearning of the Holy One, blessed be He, for His Shekhina is a movement "from above downwards," in which God tries to draw out the light implanted in the world and to come down in order to rescue it from its imprisonment.  In kabbalistic terms this is labeled "awakening from above." The yearning of the Shekhina for the Holy One, blessed be He, is a movement from "down below upwards," in which the light that is held captive in the world - whether this is the soul in the body of man, or the song of every created being, be it inanimate, plant or animal, to its Creator – tries to rise once again and cleave to the supernal Divine light.  In kabbalistic terms, this is called "awakening from below."




            The holy Zohar and in its wake the great Chassidic masters tried to connect the beginning of our parasha to these movements of awakening from below and awakening from above.  The Sefat Emet writes as follows:


"If a woman has conceived seed." Our Sages of blessed memory have said that if a woman conceives seed first she gives birth to a male child.  And in the holy Zohar: When the awakening from below stirs first, etc.  This was fulfilled in Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, as our Sages of blessed memory have said: That I have walked before Him.  This is the allusion of "The zealous perform mitzvot at the earliest possible opportunity," for they are prepared and yearn for the mitzvot.  For this reason the mitzva of circumcision was given to Avraham Avinu prior to the giving of the Torah, because of his great yearning to draw near to God, blessed be He.  (Sefat Emet, Tazri'a 5658)


            When conception begins with the woman, that is to say, when the movement toward unity begins with the feminine aspect – "His Shekhina," then she will give birth to a male, only then will there be an awakening of the masculine element – the Divine movement toward the world.


            The Sefat Emet brings an example from Avraham Avinu, and indeed this example clarifies the meaning of "awakening from below." According to the verses at the end of parashat No'ach and at the beginning of parashat Lekh Lekha, one clear morning God turned to Avraham out of the blue, and commanded him to leave his homeland and go off to an unknown land.  From this perspective, the beginning of the connection between Avrahan and God, and in essence between the chosen people founded by Avraham and God, was at God's initiative, in His incomprehensible choosing of Avraham.  Avraham, and after him Yitzchak and Ya'akov, responded to God's initiative and desire to reveal Himself in the world, and they were prepared to be the seat of that revelation.  When we come to Chazal, however, we find an entire world of midrashim that in great measure reverse the picture.


            The midrashim of Chazal tell of Avraham, a young man in search of meaning, who disdained idol worship and sought "the owner of the castle." From this perspective, the owner of the castle turned to him only after he cried out loudly, "Does the castle have an owner?"


            According to Chazal, God waited ten generations from Adam to No'ach, and then another ten generations from No'ach to Avraham, until the ground was ready, and until a call and even a cry came from down below, from the world and directed to God, that He should appear and reveal Himself.  Avraham Avinu, then, symbolizes the awakening of the lower world which led in its wake to God's revelation.  The same is true about the mitzva of circumcision, explains the Sefat Emet, which Avraham received long before the giving of the Torah – the clear symbol of "awakening from above." The mitzva of circumcision was a fulfillment of Avraham's yearning, and so it may be seen as an expression of "awakening from below." The circumcision performed on a person[4] is an expression of Avraham Avinu's desire and yearning for God, whereas the giving of the Torah is an expression of God's desire to reveal Himself and appear in the world through the people of Israel.




            Setting "awakening from below" as a condition for "awakening from above" may be understood in two ways.  The first emerges from the following words of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev:


"If a woman has conceived seed, and born a man child… And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." Many ask how this is connected to "on the eighth day." The answer seems to be that sometimes there is supernal awakening, the Holy One, blessed be He, having mercy upon Israel because of His attribute that He is called merciful and gracious, on account of which He created all the worlds, as our Rabbis of blessed memory have said: So that He may be called merciful, etc.  And sometimes the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy upon Israel because of an awakening from below, when Israel asks Him to have mercy upon them.  Then He has mercy upon them, as our Rabbis of blessed memory have said (Yevamot 64b): From where do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, yearns for the prayers of the righteous, etc.  In truth, awakening from below is more dear to the Holy One, blessed be He, than mercy due to awakening from above.  This is the allusion of "If a woman has conceived seed," for the worlds are called "woman," because they always receive from the Holy One, blessed be He.  This is "If a woman has conceived seed" – when the world, namely Israel, awakens mercy.  "And has born a man child" – that is, great mercy, and the mercy is strong having the aspect of the masculine.  And the verse explains that the mercy which is due to awakening from below is dear to the Holy One, blessed be He.  And this is "And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised," in accordance with what has been explained by our Rabbis of blessed memory: A certain gentile asked: What is finer, the work of the Holy One, blessed be He, or the work of man, etc.  Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, create man uncircumcised, etc.  And he answered him that the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to purify Israel.  It follows from here that awakening from below is more dear to the Holy One, blessed be He, than awakening from above.  And this is: "And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised," which proves that awakening from below is more important that awakning from above.  (Kedushat ha-Levi, Tazri'a)


            R. Levi Yitzchak argues that the mitzva of circumcision mentioned in our parasha contains within it the principle of "awakening from below." For we are dealing with a human act, through which a person, albeit by Divine command, through his own power, brings himself to a different level than which he had been on previously.[5] God creates man on a certain level uncircumcised, and man performs another act that goes beyond the Divine act.  The gentile who asked, "Whose work is finer," sensed that the act of circumcision performed on the eighth day, the day that follows the perfect, natural order marked by the number seven, defies God's work, as it were, saying that it has no value without our involvement.


            Chazal and R. Levi Yitzchak in their wake do not recoil from this contention, for they understand that God desires Israel's actions.  In this sense, God created the world with deficiencies, because He desires the prayers of the righteous, which gives expression to a yearning for its perfection.


            Based upon this principle, we can offer another explanation of the "mystery of sawing." The creation of male and female connected one to the other, and the sawing which comes in the wake of this connection, create the mutual yearning and desire of the male and female for one another.  The connection and separation give rise to yearning and expose the inner correspondence and full identity between male and female, which would not have happened with a self-evident, primal connection.[6]


            The "awakening from below" exposes the inner craving implanted in the world to return to its source.  God does not send a leader to take the people of Israel out of Egypt until they find the time and the strength to cry out and ask for help.  The deficiency, and the awakening that emerges in its wake, expose the desire and actualize it.  Therefore, asserts R.  Levi Yitzchak, the mercy shown to Israel as a result of "the woman's conceiving seed" and the stirring of the Shekhina that is concealed within us toward God, is greater than the mercy resulting exclusively from God's desire.


            It seems, however, that "awakening from below" is critically needed for another reason.  This emerges from the explanation offered by R.  Elimelekh of Lyzhansk regarding the importance of Israel's festivals:


This means: In any event appear so that you may draw and receive an awakening of holiness from that day which has already been sanctified with great holiness.  As we see regarding the festivals, and Shabbat, and Rosh Chodesh, that holiness is added in man, because the day causes.  So too any day on which God, blessed be He, commanded a mitzva, that day is sanctified with additional holiness on account of the mitza.  And when that day arrives, it causes to awaken holiness also in man.  And Scripture says: In any event appear so that you should be a vessel ready to receive holiness through the awakening of the day.  (No'am Elimelekh, Shelach)


            The exposure of the desire, which we discussed in the first explanation, turns the "lower world" into a full partner in supernal unity.  Not only does God want to bestow His bounty upon Israel, but they want to receive His bounty; the one goes out to meet the other.  The emphasis is on the joint desire, and on the mutuality.  This is not the case regarding the words of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk.  R. Elimelekh argues that the awakening prepares man to be a vessel that receives.  The woman, he argues, does not turn into "the masculine aspect," but her conceiving first prepares the way for her to receive in a full and appropriate manner.  Not only does the yearning stir up desire, but it also intensifies the anticipation.  "I am sleeping, but my heart is awake," is a direct result of the mad pursuit of the beloved one without reaching him.  The ability to sleep, but nevertheless to maintain an attentive heart that waits in anticipation for the beloved one's knocking, results from "awakening from below." The listening is the ability to contain, and the ability to contain is the container that allows for the bounty to be bestowed without constraints.  A bestowal of bounty resulting exclusively from an awakening from above will always come up against a closed garden and a locked gate.  The garden opens and the gate is breached through the lover's awakening toward her beloved.


            God teaches us that the way to impact upon another person depends upon our ability to stir up his desire, to bring him to attentiveness, to anticipation.  To expose his deficiency that yearns to be completed – this is awakening from below, which is the aspect of woman.


            As for listening, let us examine the following passage:


Or he says: "Then she shall be unclean seven days." For even if a person is righteous, he must always subdue himself and look at the deficiencies within him, and never regard himself as complete in his actions.  He must always serve Him, blessed be His name, on the levels of the female and the male.  That is, he must always walk in the holiness of the elevated God and look at his own lowliness.  This is: "'Remember' [zakhor] and 'observe' [shamor] were stated in a single utterance," for remember is for the masculine and observe is for the feminine, these two levels belonging to a single utterance.  Through this a person will merit that God, blessed be He, will provide him with complete communion from above.  This is: "Day unto day pours forth speech," as Chazal have said: "A drop does not fall from above unless corresponding drops go up from below." This means that God, blessed be He, does not provide man with communion from above unless two drops go up from below, these being the two aforementioned levels, through which he serves with masculinity and femininity.  (No'am Elimelekh, Tazri'a)


            R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk describes two psychological stands in the service of God, the feminine and the masculine.  Here already R. Elimelekh brings us to a level that includes within it both the masculine and the feminine.  What permits R. Elimelekh to do this is the change of terminology from bestower and receiver to "remember" and "observe."


            R. Elimelekh teaches us that remembering is an active process of advancement and striving, whereas observing expresses the passive aspect of "sit back and do nothing."


            In a dichotomous world, we are inclined to distinguish between two types of people.


            A person who goes out and conquers is the ultimate leader, one who acts and advances from one level to the next.  This is active remembering, which is the expression of constant movement forward.  Such a person does not stop aspiring, and this aspiration, it must be said, is founded on his confidence in himself, and in his ability to reach and attain.  He is not satisfied with his current level, because he knows that he is capable of more.  This is the masculinity that is always directed outwards, to the continuation, to the next destination.


            In contrast, there is the person who preserves what already exists.  A person of this type does not set high goals for himself.  He is aware of his deficiencies and he is grateful for the small amount of good qualities that he has, which in his eyes are nothing but total grace.  His only request is "Preserve all of this for me, please, my good God." He contemplates his lowliness and he becomes weak like a woman.  He is humble, and modest, and does not let himself stand out.  His contemplation is always directed inwards.  Not toward the peak beyond the next mountain, but inwards toward his self that seeks redemption.  This is femininity, calm, peaceful, and attentive.


            R. Elimelekh teaches us that even while he stands before God, a person must adopt for himself these two aspects.


            As a male, running toward God elevates a person every minute to new peaks, but this puts him at risk to lose the capacity for attentiveness, sensitivity and modesty.


            As a female, the recognition of limits and limitations, and accepting them with total love, will give rise to the ability to listen and be attentive, to accept God, His leadership, His decrees, and the inner voice that He planted within every person.  But this puts a person at risk for treading in one's place, giving up on higher goals, suppressing the desire beating ceaselessly within us that aspires for the infinite.


            These "two drops" of which man is composed must mix and fashion in man the correct balance, and the contradictory inner dichotomy which gives rise to a new life of love and fear, drawing near and distancing, coupling and separation.  It is through this cycle, which is not circular but spiral, that are built the state of face to face, of the direct glance and stepping forward of a woman toward her husband, of a man toward his God, and of the Shekhina toward the Holy One, blessed be He – When I went out to greet You, I found you coming toward me!




[1] "And He took one of his tzela'ot" (Bereishit 2:21), tzela bearing the sense of "side," as in (Shemot 26:20): "And for the second tzela of the tabernacle."


[2] Many good Jews, even those not steeped in Kabbala, are accustomed to recite "le-shem yichud" before counting the omer, and some also recite it before drinking the four cups of wine at the seder.  Chassidim, however, have these words in mind in their every action and before every mitzva. 


[3] Anyone who wishes to deepen his understanding of these ideas should see the lecture series, published on this site, "Mavo le-Eser ha-Sefirot," especially the three lectures on the sefira of Malkhut.


[4] We shall immediately see another aspect of this fact.


[5] While the Sefat Emet attaches to circumcision the quality of "awakening from below" in light of its contrast to the giving of the Torah, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev attaches that same quality to circumcision in light of its contrast to the natural state in which man is born, i.e., uncircumcised.


[6] It seems that this is the essence of Shir ha-Shirim, where the ideas of connection and separation play out against each other many times. 


(Translated by David Strauss)