April 6, 2000
Parashat Tazriah (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)
Unworthiness is not a quality that carries positive connotations. It's usually thought of as a state to be overcome, or a situation to be avoided. Perhaps, though, it has a redeeming feature. Perhaps feelings of unworthiness should actually be reveled in and appreciated -- at least sometimes.
The very first passage in this week's Torah portion raises the discussion of unworthiness and its place in our personal experience. The passage concerns a woman who has just recently given birth. After delineating a variety of ritual details that pertain to the new mother, the Torah directs her to eventually make her way to the Temple, where she offers both a burnt offering and, somewhat curiously, a sin offering as well.
The incongruity of a sin offering in connection with child bearing is noted by a great number of the medieval and contemporary Biblical commentators. Particularly pointed are the comments of one of the great masters of our generation, Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory. "To be fruitful and multiply is the very first mitzvah given to humankind," writes Nehama. "There is no sin to be found in the mother who has given birth!" Why then a sin offering?
After citing a number of responses that have been offered over the centuries, Nehama offers a very original and very striking solution. She draws upon the story in which the prophet Isaiah experiences a most stunning prophetic vision -- a vision of the heavens and their hosts, and of the Divine throne (see Isaiah, chapter 6). She calls our attention to Isaiah's unusual reaction to this incredible prophetic experience. These are Isaiah words after his vision: "Woe is me, for I am undone. For I am a man of unclean lips." The intensity of his awesome brush with God filled Isaiah with a powerful sense of inadequacy, an aching sensation of unworthiness. But we are able to glean something profound from Isaiah's expression. We learn that unworthiness is one side of a coin -- a coin whose other side is awe and wonder. The two experiences are simultaneous and interwoven.
Nehama then proceeds to apply this model to the mother who has just given birth. (And it is with deepest humility, never myself having given birth, that I now comment upon the process of childbirth.) She writes about the brush with God that childbirth is. She describes the intense sensation of the greatness of God that accompanies the consciousness that there is a living being inside one's womb, and the overpowering feelings of wonder and awe that attend the bringing of that life into the world. And per Isaiah's experience, awe and wonder are often intertwined with feelings of unworthiness. It is to assuage these feelings of unworthiness, Nehama concludes, that the sin offering is brought. There is no actual sin, as is obvious. But there are the feelings of insufficient righteousness and of insufficient holiness, to have been blessed with so close an encounter with the Master of the Universe, the Creator of life. It was to engage these feelings that the mother brought her offering.
The feeling of unworthiness is not then such a bad thing. It is the travel partner of wonder, the gateway to awe. Have you ever taken a step back, marveled at your spouse, and asked yourself what have you done to deserve her devotion, to deserve his love? Have you ever had that feeling of unworthiness? If you have, you have also been blessed with the sensation of wonder. Have you ever taken in the breathtaking landscape of good fortune that is your friends and your family, your home and your work, and been overwhelmed with the gratitude of the unworthy? If you have, you know what awe and wonder are. I have found these moments of awe and wonder to literally be the greatest moments of life.
The welcoming of the sensation of unworthiness is countercultural in our time and place. Our culture's message is that we deserve things, and that we invariably wind up with less than we deserve. We are not taught today to ask "how am I worthy?" We are taught to assert "I deserve." It's too bad. When all the things we have are things that we deserve, there is no wonder, and there is no awe. And it just might be that awe and wonder are the only things in this world that we truly deserve.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.