The Gaon from Vilna, already known as a child prodigy, was challenged when he was six years old to explain the connection between the words: to distinguish between the contaminated and the pure, and between the chaya (creature) that may be eaten and the chaya that may not be eaten (Vayikra 11:47), which conclude this week’s parsha and begin next week’s with the words: When a women conceives and gives birth to a male etc (ibid 12:2). The young genius thought deeply for a moment, went to the bookcase and pulled out a volume of the Talmud. With a story he related from there (Yoma 83b), he brilliantly connected these two seemingly unrelated subjects—one dealing with the laws pertaining to kosher animal consumption and the other with the the contamination a women experiences after childbirth
The Mishna (Yoma 83a) discusses the leniencies made for a pregnant woman who finds herself unable to fulfil her obligation to fast on Yom Kippur due to her weakened state. The Talmud relates that at two different occasions the famous Rebbe (Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi- collator of the Mishna) was asked by the family of an expectant mother who was having difficulty fasting on Yom Kippur if she may ease her discomfort by eating. On both occasions, he responded that the women should be gently warned about the holiness of the day, and only if this makes no impact on her desire to eat should food be given. To the first woman, this gentle encouragement was sufficient to give her the strength to continue her fast and she soon gave birth to one of the greatest people of the time: Rav Yochanon. The other, however, was not able to be convinced, and thus she ate, and the child born to her was the infamous Shabtai. With the understanding that the word chaya can mean either a creature or a pregnant woman, the Gaon explained that the Torah actually alluded to this particular anecdote in the following way. To distinguish between the contaminated and the pure [the impure and pure mothers], and between the chaya [pregnant women] that may be eaten and the chaya that may not be eaten [i.e. their piety can be identified if anything is eaten by them or not on Yom Kippur], with the results being totally different and clearly identified only when a women conceives and gives birth to a male [i.e. the children will be on totally different levels of piety]. Although this is not the way these verses should be learnt on a simple level, the message the Talmud relates which the Gaon found encrypted in the Torah teaches us a lesson that has a far wider application than the laws of pregnancy and Yom Kippur; in fact, it’s the key to successful childrearing. Just as every caring Jewish mother seeks the best milk formula to ensure the physical best for her child, so too she must feed the child a formula that ensures a healthy spiritual body.
This we are taught is mesiras nefesh, the drive to go beyond our desires and whims for the sake of uncompromising moral values. A sensible pregnant smoker will fight her nicotine addiction to ensure that the child is born with all limbs attached, and so too caring parents will work tirelessly to break negative traits through positive character building in order that their children are given the chance to breathe through clearer spiritual lungs.
Rabbi Sipper is a close friend of ShortVort.com. Further divrei Torah from the Rov can be found on his yeshiva’s website at www.ohravraham.com