The previous Sidra, Shemini, contained the laws of ritual cleanliness and purity as applied to animals. This week’s Sidra applies the same concepts to men and women. In the Midrash, Rav Simlai draws an analogy between the fact that animals were created before man, and that they were legislated about before him. What is the substance of this analogy? Was man created last because he was higher or lower than the animals? In answering the question, the Rebbe traces the connection between Rav Simlai’s opinion and his character, and examines an important distinction between innate and acquired virtue, or between the excellence which is inherited and that which is earned. It is a question that has perplexed many thinkers: Who is better, the man who is born righteous or the man who has made himself righteous? The Rebbe considers in depth the role of effort in the religious life.

1. The Name “Tazria”

The names of the Sidrot, as has been mentioned before,1 are not merely labels to differentiate one from the next. Every name in Hebrew, the holy language, is an indication of the nature of that which is named. The names of the Sidrot tell us of their essential content. Thus we find that a number of Sidrot are not called by their opening words, as is usually the case, but by some later word which more perfectly expresses their theme.

An example of this occurs with this week’s Sidra. After the general introduction (“And the L-rd spoke to Moses saying…”)2 the first word is “woman” (ishah): “If a woman conceives and bears a male child.” And yet we do not nowadays call the Sidra Ishah but Tazria (“conceive”).

What, then, is the concept implicit in the word Tazria that sums up the content of the entire Sidra?

There is also a difficulty posed by Rashi’s comment on the words “If a woman conceives.” Quoting the Midrash,3 he says, “Rav Simlai said: Just as the formation of man took place after that of the cattle, beast and fowl, when the world was created, so the law regarding him is set forth after the law regarding cattle, beast and fowl (contained in the previous Sidra).” Thus the new theme that our Sidra takes up, by contrast with the previous chapters, is law relating to humans, as opposed to the laws relating to animals. Thus the word ishah (“woman”) is not only the first individuating word in the Sidra: It also seems highly appropriate to its subject-matter—legislation relating to humans. How is it that “Tazria” embodies more completely this idea of “the law of man?”

2. Man’s Place in Creation

Rav Simlai, in his comment quoted above, uses the phrase “just as” rather than “because.” In other words, the law of man follows that of the animals, not because he was created last, but for the same reason that he was created last.

What was this reason? Various answers are given in the Midrash and the Talmud.4 One is: So that if a man’s mind becomes too proud he may be reminded that even the gnats preceded him in the order of creation. Alternatively, so that heretics should not be able to say that the Holy One, blessed be He, had a partner (namely, Adam) in creation. Again, man was created last so that he might immediately enter upon the fulfillment of a precept. He was created on Friday so that he could immediately sanctify the Shabbat. Lastly, it was so that he might go “into the banquet” straight away; that is, all nature was ready for his use.

But the commentators have noticed that all these reasons, while they apply to man being last in creation, do not explain his being last in legislation. What is the meaning of Rav Simlai’s analogy, “just as?”

The Alter Rebbe, in his book Tanya,5 explained that in one sense man is lower than all other creatures, even beasts which are unclean; lower even than the gnat. For not only does he sin, whereas they do not. But he can sin, whereas they cannot. In potentiality as well as in actuality, sin is a reality for man but not for animal.

3. The Order of Learning

The usual order to take in learning Torah is to progress from the simple to the complex, from the light to the weighty. This applies to what is learned: A child of five begins with the Chumash, moves to the Mishnah at the age of ten,6 and so on. It applies also to the depth of learning: First comes acquaintance with the text and only afterwards come the questions, the dialectics, the in-depth study.7 And it applies to the manner of learning. We do not reach at once the highest level of Torah study for its own sake, like David who8 “elevated the Source of the Torah on High, and united it with the Essence of G‑d.” Instead, “when a man does it (studies), in the first place he does so with himself in mind.”9

On the other hand, when the Torah was given, the order was reversed. Its devolution from the spirituality of G‑d to the physical situation of man was, as it were, a descent from higher to lower. In the passage in Proverbs10 which describes the wisdom of the Torah, it first says: “Then I was by Him, as one brought up with Him, and I was daily His delight.” Only subsequently were “my delights with the sons of men.” The Torah reached down from the heights of G‑d to become the possession of man.11 And we in our learning retrace its path, ascending from our physical situation to spiritual closeness with G‑d.

This order of learning is mirrored in the structure of the Torah itself. This is why the laws concerning animals are placed first. To sanctify the animal world, by distinguishing the impure from the pure, is relatively simple. The problem of sin does not arise in their case. But for man to sanctify himself, given his capacity for wrongdoing, is far harder. Thus the laws of human conduct come last. Not because of man’s innate superiority to the animals, but because of his deficiencies. This, too, is Rav Simlai’s opinion as to why he was created last: “So that if he becomes too proud, he may be reminded that the gnats preceded him in the order of creation.”

4. Rav Simlai—The Man and his Opinions

We can now see the connection between Rav Simlai’s comment, that just as man was created last so his legislation comes last in the Torah, and the character of Rav Simlai himself.

A virtue can be possessed in two ways. It can be won by effort, or it can be innate or fortuitous. Each has its advantages. An innate or unworked-for virtue has no natural limits. It is like the difference between talent and expertise. An inborn talent may be unlimited; expertise, painfully acquired, can never quite match it. But in its inwardness, the virtue reached by effort surpasses the virtue which is innate. One is always more closely involved with what one has earned than with what one has been given.

This distinction underlies the two contrasting explanations of man’s place as the last of the works of creation: The first that he is the highest, the second that he is the lowest, of creatures.

In innate capacities, he is the highest. From birth, before he has begun to serve G‑d, he is nonetheless possessed of a soul which is literally a part of G‑d.12 This he retains, together with an underlying faith, even if he turns away from the Divine will.13 But in those virtues which he acquires through the effort of service, at the outset he is no better than the rest of creation. In fact, what is most readily apparent is his physical nature, his lack of restraint, his capacity for sin. The powers of the soul are as yet undisclosed. They need to be brought to the surface by effort in the service of G‑d. Hence the second opinion, that man was created last to be reminded that even the gnat is in this one respect prior to him.

The connection between this view and its author is this: Rav Simlai did not have an illustrious ancestry. The story is told in the Talmud14 that he came to Rabbi Jochanan and asked him to teach him the Book of Genealogies. But Rabbi Jochanan refused, because (according to Rashi) his lineage was undistinguished. Therefore Rav Simlai, unable to lay claim to inherited virtue, appreciated the value and importance of effort and acquired virtue. This explains his reading of the order of creation. When man is created, he has no acquired distinctions except the disposition to sin. He was made last because at that stage he is the lowest of beings.

This also explains why human law should be called Tazria (“conceives”). For the process from conception to birth is a symbol of effort, of bringing to fruition, in other words of “labor” in both its senses. There is an additional symbolism in the phrase “if a woman conceives .” The male and female elements in procreation represent respectively the “spiritual awakening from above” (i.e., the Divine initiative) and “from below” (the human initiative).15 And service, effort, struggle are the forms which the human initiative takes.

5. The Two Faces of Man

There is a principle expressed in the Lecha Dodi prayer that “last in action, first in thought.” Thus man, who was created last, was the original intention behind the whole enterprise of creation.

Both opinions agree with this, that man is the apex of created life. But one side of the argument sees his stature in terms of his innate essence: His Divine soul. The other sees it in terms of his potential achievement through the effort of serving G‑d, while viewing man in himself as the lowest of beings. 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 G‑d”). This is his essential capacity—to transform himself completely, from a natural to a spiritual being.

6. Service and Creativity

The name “Tazria” therefore symbolizes “avodah,” man’s service of G‑d. It also suggests the importance of that service. For when a woman conceives a child and it grows in the womb, an entirely new being is brought into existence. The birth of the child merely reveals this creation, which was wrought at the moment of conception. And when man enters on the life of service, he too creates a new being: Natural man becomes spiritual man, Adamah (the dust of “the earth”) becomes Adameh la-Elyon (a semblance of G‑d). And his Divine soul, which was innate, becomes also inward, because it has changed from being a gift to being something earned.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VII pp. 74-79)