Author Archives: Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun

About Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun

Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun works as a community adult educator at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Florida.

The Covenant of Fertility

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The themes of fertility and barrenness are central to the biblical narrative. It is striking how often we encounter barren women in the Bible. Sarah, the women of Abimelekh’s household, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, Hannah, and the Shunamite woman are all examples of barren women whose wombs are opened by God. Clearly, the process of reproduction holds a key to biblical theology. The very covenant of Israel is presented as a brit [covenant] of fertility. God promises Abram, “This is my covenant with you. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…I will make you exceedingly fertile.” (Genesis 17:4, 6). This week’s parashah further emphasizes the connection between covenant and childbearing. Moses teaches:

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb…You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock… (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).

As we explore the theme of fertility in the context of parashat Ekev, we uncover one of the theological underpinnings of the barrenness motif in the Bible.

Our Torah portion contributes to two important elements of Jewish liturgy: the birkat ha-mazon (prayer of thanksgiving after a meal) and the Shema. In both cases, the Torah text responds to the threat of abundance. Following the directive to bless God after eating, the Torah explains the necessity for such a prayer discipline:

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God… and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17)

This passage expresses the divine anxiety about bringing the Israelites out of the barren desert into a land of milk and honey. Perhaps the Israelites would forget the ultimate source of their livelihood amidst the lush and fertile soil? While they were depending on God for manna and miraculous bursts of water, the Israelites could not forget God’s reigning hand in their sustenance. However, as farmers on their own sovereign land, the Israelites might easily develop a sense of autonomous human control over life.

It was for this very same reason, according to our parashah, that God removed the Israelites from Egypt. The delusion of human self-sufficiency was characteristic of life in Egypt. We learn that geography and topography are central factors in the spiritual experience. Man’s relationship with water, in particular, determines his approach to the divine. Moses explains the essential difference between life in Egypt and life in the Holy Land:

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into… soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye…. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

In Egypt, the source of water lay at man’s feet: the overflow of the Nile provided ample water for irrigation. Through the human effort of collecting this water, Egyptians lived and prospered. However, God wanted to rear a nation that would not look down for an automatic source of water. Rather, Israelites in the Promised Land would look up to the heavens for rain.

Furthermore, as the Torah goes on to explain, this source of rain would depend on the moral accountability of the Israelite nation. As the second paragraph of the Shema proclaims, God brought the Israelites into a land which would physically manifest the status of their covenantal relationship with God: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…I will grant the rain for your land” (Deuteronomy 11:13). The agricultural realities of the Land of Israel foster a spiritual dependency on God.

On the one hand, the Israelites enter a bountiful land. This transition from the desert to a fruitful land might result in a level of arrogance and spiritual forgetfulness. The antidote is prayer, the birkat ha-mazon. On the other hand, the Israelites enter a land dependent on rain as the main source of water. This transition from Egypt’s Nile to a land of limited water is insurance for a God-centered existence.

Our Torah portion highlights God’s fundamental role in the continuation and survival of life, from the covenantal promise of fertility to the command for blessings after meals to the assurance of rain for a faithful nation. From this perspective, the recurring theme of barrenness in the Bible is not surprising. Human procreation is perhaps the greatest threat to an awareness of God’s pivotal role in life. We create human beings out of our own bodies! And yet, the Torah teaches over and over again that it is God who opens the womb. God is the giver of life. Conception is due to the merciful attention of God. Yes, we are partners with God in the ongoing work of Creation. But, we must never forget that God alone is the architect of life.

This is why the Talmud claims that God’s own hands retain three keys: “the Key of Rain, the Key of Reproduction and the Key of Resurrection” (B. Ta’anit 2a). May our lives be blessed with abundance, but may we always remember that it is the Living Eternal God who brings us into the life of this world, sustains us in life, and returns us to life in the World to Come.

Life, Death, and Impurity

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

My spiritual and intellectual journey as a teacher of Torah began with the purity system in Leviticus. Perhaps this was a strange place to begin my life’s passion — exploring genital discharges, corpse contamination and leprosy. However, the study of biblical purity laws yielded for me aprofound appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of our tradition.

As a young feminist college student, I discovered that the ancient Jewish laws of menstrual impurity were not an example of gender discrimination or blood taboo. Rather, the Torah teaches that all genital discharges, female and male, are sources of tumah (ritual impurity).These laws are part of a broader symbolic system, which highlights the power of confronting mortality and the subsequent need to ritualize the reaffirmation of life.

Many scholars concur that life/death symbolism is the underlying principle behind the biblical purity system. According to this theory, one becomes impure upon contact with death or with the loss of potential life. Indeed, the greatest source of impurity is a human corpse (Numbers 19). Leprosy, a scaly white skin disease which made one look like a corpse (see Numbers 12:12), is another severe form of impurity. Genital fluids, which represent the loss of generative material from the font of life, also cause impurity (Leviticus 15).

The Source of Life

According to biblical theology, God is the Source of Life. The God of Israel embodies life, and only the living can praise God (Psalms115). Therefore, our encounters with death or symbolic reminders of death momentarily remove us from the life-affirming rituals of God’s abode in theTemple. Only after a symbolic rebirth through immersion in the "living waters" of the mikveh (ritual bath) could one return to a state of purity.

For many years, I have relished any opportunity to teach about the biblical purity system and the powerful purification ritual of the mikveh. However, year after year, I am challenged by the most paradoxical case of impurity in Leviticus. Parashat Tazria declares that a mother becomes impure following childbirth:

"When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days … she shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days … if she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks …and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days" (Leviticus 12:2-5).

Why would a mother contract impurity upon bringing new life into the world if impurity is the result of the symbolic forces of death? Furthermore, why would a mother’s period of impurity double upon the birth of a female child?

Each time I read Leviticus Chapter 12, I consider the available responses to these persistent questions. There are several compelling suggestions. First, childbirth in the ancient Near East was fraught with danger to the mother and high infant morality rates. Thus, every childbirth was an encounter with potential death. Secondly, the pregnant woman is a vessel of abundant life. Following delivery, the mother experiences a loss of this powerful presence of life within. Her discharge of life leaves a void and creates the ritual necessity for purification. While neither of these answers perfectly reconciles the impurity of childbirth within the symbolic system, they both address the experience of childbirth as a nexus point between life and death.

Giving Birth Today

In light of recent events, I have contemplated another possible explanation for the impurity of childbirth. In a haunting discussion about instability in the Middle East and the vulnerable state of world affairs, a colleague described the frightening experience of bringing a child into this world: "While I feel great joy in creating a new life," he remarked,"I also know that I have created a new potential for death." Every human being will die. Each birth brings another fragile, mortal being into the universe. In our precarious world, this reality quickly comes into sharp focus.

Herein lies one explanation for the double period of impurity following the birth of a female child. The baby girl embodies the potential to one day bear another new life. Each life that is brought into the world will also bring another death. Therefore, the Torah marks the birth of a girl, a future holy vessel for the creation of life, as fraught with twice the amount "death symbolism."

Perhaps the laws of Leviticus Chapter 12 respond to the conflicting emotions of any new parent. A new birth brings joy and trepidation, awe and fear. A new parent has faith in the potential for life, yet dreads the possibility of death. The biblical purity system proclaims that our confrontations with the temporal nature of life leave a deep spiritual imprint–from conception to birth to illness to death. At every stage in life, we acknowledge and ritualize our encounters with death. Then we embrace and immerse in life anew.