April 26, 2012
Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Human development in two worlds
Due to their not (yet) having been translated by the Jewish publishing houses, much of the midrashic library is a treasure-trove of untouched gemstone mines. It is particularly fertile ground for rabbis to utilize in homiletical discourses, because not all midrash is meant to be understood literally. Frankly, much of midrash can not be understood literally – an essential point to bear in mind before exploring any midrashic passage.
It is fascinating to read through certain midrashim – and without the crutch of a translation, because it leaves the midrash open to interpretation, as well as the derivation of either important lessons, important messages, or both.
Parshat Tazria opens with the laws and practices surrounding giving birth and the aftermath of a boy’s or a girl's arrival, vis-à-vis the baby's mother's responsibilities. The Yalkut Shimoni on Tazria 547 recounts a debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in which they differ over how the fetus develops versus how a parallel development takes place in the World to Come.
Beit Shammai says "In this world, the flesh and skin develops first, followed by the sinews and bones. In the World to Come, the sinews and bones develop first, and the completion is the development of skin and flesh." He proves this analysis from Yechezkel's depiction of the Dry Bones coming to life (37:8).
On the other hand, Beit Hillel thinks the two developments pan out in the same ways. "In this world the skin and flesh develops first, and [the body] is completed with the sinews and bones. In the future as well, development will begin with skin and flesh and will be completed with the sinews and bones." He proves his analysis from a comment made by Iyov in Iyov 10:9-11.
What are they talking about?
Unlike questions of a "halakhic" nature, I don't believe the conclusion to this difference of opinion is particularly important. But the debate does give us pause to consider how people develop – not only physically, but also spiritually.