Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Sin is a Divine Gift
Our weekly Torah reading begins laying out spiritual practices connected to human birth: “Ishah ki tazria… – When a woman conceives…” [Lev. 12:2] In his commentary on these three words, Rashi (11th Century, France,) quotes a peculiar midrash by Rabbi Simlai: “Just as the formation of mankind took place after that of the cattle, beast and fowl, when the world was created; so the law regarding mankind is set forth after the law concerning cattle, beast and fowl.” [Lev. Rabbah 14:1] What is Rashi trying to tell us here? By bringing up this midrash he explains why the laws concerning animals’ sanctity — which occupy the previous Torah portion — come before this week’s reading which explores the laws concerning human sanctity.
Rabbis like Rashi are preoccupied with this order in the six-day Creation myth. On the one hand, some argue, mankind was created last because people were to be the apex of Creation. On the other hand, many counter, in order to avoid misplaced pride, mankind was created last to be reminded that even the gnats took precedence in Creation. What concerns the rabbis most is their realization that, contrary to humans, animals are incapable of sin and may, therefore, appear to be superior to mankind; at least in God’s eyes.
We humans are capable of sin. We make mistakes, collapse into the illusion of the self and forget our Divine nature. Perhaps, because of this inherent flaw, we had to come after the gnats in the order of Creation. But our sages take a radically different perspective on the matter. Yes, sin — missing the mark, acting in a way that denies the Divine manifestation that we and the world are — is part of the human make-up, part of our social process of individuation, of self-creation. But it is not a flaw, however, rather a Divine gift. Why? Because, our sages insist, together with our propensity to sin, we are also capable of Teshuvah, of returning. Our return is to the center of our Being, remembering the Truth of who we are waiting to be uncovered beneath the veils of our habituated conditioned self.
Though animals are sinless, they are innately so. There is no work required on their part to maintain their sinless status. We, humans, on the other hand, have to work hard at remembering. We are to diligently and consistently engage in spiritual practices that help us disentangle from our identification with ego, create rituals and holiday celebrations that repeatedly serve to remind us that there is more to us than our self-obsession, carve out Shabbat spaces to break free from the busy-ness of ego-driven societies and retreat within ourselves. It is no mistake that this week’s Torah portion dealing with spiritual practices begins with “Isha ki tazria… –When a woman conceives;” for it is precisely through great effort and arduous labor pains that we birth the True Self that we are. Thanks to the gift of sin, we humans have the capacity to transcend our self completely and awaken to the One we are. A gnat simply can’t.
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson writes in his commentary: “This view, which is Rav Simlai’s, sees the two faces of man (‘Adam’ in Hebrew). On the one hand he is formed from the dust of the earth (‘Adamah’); on the other, he is capable of becoming Divine (‘Adameh la-Elyon’ — I will resemble the One’).” [Torah Studies, p.182] The Rebbe recognizes the dual character of human birth. Our animal nature puts us on par with the rest of earth’s animal kingdom. But our potential to transcend and awaken sets the unique gift of our birth apart.