The name of this parashah, Tazria, literally means “She will cause to grow,” referring in this case to a mother’s conception of a child in her womb.1 The first section of the parashah discusses the ritual defilement that a woman incurs as a result of childbirth; the rest of the parashah discusses the defilement contracted by a person or garment afflicted with the condition known as tzara’at.

Tzara’at is neither any disease with which we are familiar today nor any natural disease that was ever known to humanity. It is a physical condition directly and miraculously resulting from some spiritual flaw, rather than one contracted by a lack of hygiene or by exposure to any physical contagium.

As we have seen,2 the Torah discusses two broad categories of defilement: spiritual defilement, which reduces and mars our sensitivity or receptivity to Divine consciousness, and ritual defilement, which renders us forbidden to enter the precincts of the Temple or to consume sacred food. Both of the two types of defilement discussed in this parashah—that incurred through childbirth and that accompanying tzara’at—are forms of ritual defilement.

The Temple and its rituals are designed to connect us with God, the source of all life and vitality. When we experience an encounter with death, decay, depression, mortality, or some other antithesis of life, the overwhelming confrontation with the apparent futility of life renders us temporarily incapable of participating in the life-affirming rituals of the Temple and the other, ancillary activities associated with it. Similarly, any nexus-point between life and death (such as childbirth) forces us to focus us on our mortality, thereby rendering us susceptible to pessimistic inactivity or depression until we undergo a process of “purification” designed to reorient us toward life, activity, and optimism.

In particular, tzara’at imparts the severest degree of ritual defilement: the afflicted individual is not only banned from entering the Temple; he or she is not allowed contact with the community at all. Thus excluded from Temple-life and communal life, the sufferer of tzara’at is—as the sages put it3—a walking metaphor for death.

Being that the parashah is so thoroughly focused on the particulars of defilement—the consciousness of death, inactivity, and depression—it seems strange that its name, which, as we know, should express its general content, is an expression of “sowing,” which is an act of hopeful optimism intended to give rise to new life.

The solution to this enigma lies in the Torah’s general attitude toward reward and punishment. God Himself is the personification of perfect and absolute goodness, and as such, possesses no attribute we could characterize as “evil.” Evil, from the Jewish perspective, is not intrinsic to God, but an entity that He created in order to afford us, His creations, free choice. By the same token, God’s Torah, His gift to humanity, is an expression of His absolute, unmitigated goodness, and therefore, even the apparently negative phenomena we observe in it—threats, punishments, curses—are ultimately expressions of His goodness. The punishments specified in the Torah are all to be understood as corrective—even the various forms of capital punishment, which are only administered when a person has demonstrated that he or she is no longer capable of living properly and therefore needs to be brought to the next stage of existence, wherein his or her soul can progress unhindered toward its ultimate rectification.

In this light, contracting any of the various forms of defilement described in the Torah is not a vindictive punishment, but a signal and impetus to open a new chapter in spiritual growth. The purification process is carefully designed to lead us from a potentially detrimental path back to a positive, healthy mental orientation. It is in this sense that the name Tazria, “she will sow,” is indeed an appropriate name for a parashah that is wholly devoted to the details of defilement.

This appropriateness becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that, as mentioned, the whole phenomenon of tzara’at is miraculous, having nothing to do with the normal processes of nature. If God “goes out of His way” to give us this indication that it is time to turn over a new leaf, we can appreciate how tzara’at is truly an opportunity for spiritual renewal and rebirth, altogether justifying the name Tazria for the parashah.4

A further reason why this parashah is aptly entitled Tazria is because sowing (together with the subsequent tasks necessary to ensure that the seed germinates and matures) is the epitome of arduous work.

This being the case, sowing can be seen as a metaphor for the difference between animal existence and human existence. Although animals think and feel, they do not possess the same degree of free choice that human beings do; they cannot oppose God’s will. Human beings, in contrast, can freely oppose God’s will, and if left to their own devices they will largely ignore it. They therefore need to be trained and refined in order to live up to their spiritual potential.

As an expression of this inborn inferiority to animals, human beings were the last to be created during the week of Creation. Of course, it is possible to posit precisely the opposite: that human beings were created last because they are the pinnacle of creation, and indeed, the sages articulate both perspectives. The difference between the two perspectives is that human beings can be considered superior to animals by virtue of the Divine gift with which only they have been endowed (their soul), while they can be considered inferior to animals due to their unique capacity to sin and propensity to do so.

The fact that the laws concerning the defilement of animals, which appear in the preceding parashah, Shemini, precede the laws concerning the defilement of human beings, which appear in this parashah, can be understood as an expression of the perspective that humans are inferior to animals. Inasmuch as human beings are able to disobey God’s will, much more effort is required to refine them than is required to refine or elevate an animal. The Torah therefore treats the simpler laws pertaining to animals before treating the more complex laws pertaining to people.

On the other hand, the fact that the laws of human defilement are presented after those of animal defilement can also be understood as an expression of the other perspective, in which humans are superior to animals. Precisely because we human beings possess free choice, we are capable of reaching much greater spiritual heights than animals, simply because overcoming the innate disadvantage of being capable of sin requires summoning greater spiritual potential than merely living out one’s predestination.

This effort is alluded to in the name Tazria, for nurturing a seed after it is sown until it grows into a mature plant requires long, hard work, just as revealing and cultivating our innate potential requires prolonged, arduous effort.

In this light, both perspectives—namely, that we were created last either because of our inferiority or superiority to the rest of creation—are one. It is our inborn inferiority that, if we capitalize on it successfully, ultimately enables us to reveal our innate superiority as human beings created in God’s image.

This potential is also alluded to in the name Tazria, since just as the new life that begins when we sow a seed becomes manifest only much later, after much effort has been expended, so does the innate potential of the soul become manifest only after we have expended great effort in refining ourselves, overcoming our inborn animalistic tendencies, and making ourselves and our world into God’s true home.5