Women & Judaism

Connections: Before and After – Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

My 3-year-old granddaughter was in the mood to reminisce. She began her journey down memory lane by saying, “Last year, when I was a baby…” The rest of the sentence was less interesting, but I was captivated by the concept of remembering babyhood. “What were you before you were a baby?” wasn’t a fair question, and I knew it. Walking away (and leaving her Bubby to philosophize in splendid isolation) was a very reasonable response. Smart thinking for a 3-year-old!

People can’t relate to where and who they were before they were born, and don’t do much better when thinking about what happens after their inevitable death. Either thought is both fascinating and wearisome. The fact that both ideas are so disconnected from the here and now makes it easy to live your life without asking the Big Question: “What’s it all about?”

The Gemara (Niddah 30b) tells you about your beginnings and its imprint on your life today. It begins with a rhetorical question, asking what a child resembles before it is born. Rabi Simlai answers: “It’s like a folded writing tablet. Its hands rest on its two temples, its two elbows on its two legs and its two heels against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees…. A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other. And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days.  It is also taught the Torah from beginning to end.  

“As soon as it sees the light of day, an angel slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely…. It can’t leave the womb until it makes an oath. What is the nature of the oath? Be righteous, and be never wicked; and even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, in your own eyes you will be as though you are wicked. The Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, His ministers are pure and the soul which He gave you is pure; if you preserve it in purity, well and good, but if not, I will take it away from you.”

Maharal explains that until you take your first breath, the definitive “you” is your head, with your limbs folded around it, leaving it clearly in the center… It’s only when you encounter this world that your body takes on its own life; your limbs spread out and distance themselves from your head. Your body then demands your identity; it wants to walk, touch and feel, and not necessarily to involve your mind or your soul. The drive toward physical self-definition feeds the yetzer hara, which was unknown to you until your birth, but from then on becomes your lifetime partner. You 
are not unarmed against what is both the source of challenge and the great oppressor. Your soul is the light that gives you vision that takes you far beyond the confines that your body imposes.

The most cryptic part of this passage is the oath. What point is there in making an oath that you don’t have any way of remembering?

In order to answer that question, you have to first understand what making an oath all is about. If, for instance, you claim that you repaid a debt, but you have no proof that you did, and the man you borrowed the money from still has your I.O.U., there are specific circumstances in which beis din could require that you swear that you returned the money.

Why would taking an oath matter? If you are comfortable with stealing money, why wouldn’t swearing falsely be just as easy? Swearing falsely, Maharal tells us (Chiddushei Aggadah, Niddah 30) is more severe than you might think. When you make an oath, and swear by Hashem’s Name, you are saying in essence that you are attached to Hashem; you acknowledge His presence in your life.

Your soul swore it would be a tzaddik. You are incapable of totally forgetting that Hashem is in your life. This is why you feel accountable (to one degree or another) to something bigger than you are.

You swore not to be evil. This is the reason you are horrified when you hear about atrocities. Because you can’t bear defining yourself as evil (or even wrong), your oath can lead you to become an artful dodger, avoiding guilt by mastering the art of creative rationalization until good and evil become indistinguishable.

When you begin making a cheshbon hanefesh you have to start somewhere. Begin by asking yourself, “Am I still aware of the beauty and eternality of my soul? Or have I allowed my body to generate the illusion that physical reality is the only show in town?”

Thank Hashem for giving you the clarity, the education and the inspiration to be able to answer these questions. Ask yourself what you can do to hear the oath more clearly. 

With Kind permission from Hamodia


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