One of my favorite TV shows is the BBC’s “Call The Midwife,” and waiting until October for the next season to start is a bit excruciating for me. Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the show focuses on a group of women who serve as midwifes for an underprivileged community in London’s East End. They live in the home of a religious order called St. Raymond Nonatus with the sisters, who are also midwives. In addition to providing care for all aspects of pregnancy, birth and beyond, they’re responsible for the medical care for all of the community’s residents, along with the occasional traveling circus.
The show embraces life and death, illness and recovery, joy and sadness, and everything in between. Not everyone survives an illness or accident, and sometimes a pregnancy ends with the loss of the baby and/or mother. The realities of life are out there in plain sight, and dealt with.
This week’s Torah reading, Tazria-Metzora, deals with situations having to do with precarious health for individuals and for the community. The act of childbirth, tazria, renders the woman ritually impure, and she needs to observe a period of confinement during this time of impurity. While childbirth has become significantly safer over the past several decades, it’s still fraught with danger to both mother and child. At a time when we’re looking forward to welcoming a new life into the world, we’re staring into the face of death.
Being ritually pure, or clean, and ritually impure/unclean, has nothing to do with a person’s character, behavior or actions; it’s a condition that happens because of contact with a corpse, with a type of scaly skin affliction (that might be likened to a form of Streptococcus pyrogenes) and childbirth. No one stayed in a state of impurity indefinitely; the Torah outlines the procedures for regaining the previous, “pure” status, and certainly the goal is for all to be well and return to being part of the community.
The situations that cause ritual impurity all remind us of the fragility of life and health, and the fact that we can’t take it for granted. God wants us to show reverence for life and respect for the dead. For the midwives and sisters of Nonatus House, this was a way of life and evident in their work. May it be so for us.