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וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean. (Vayikra 12:1,2)
The sensitive ear will pick up on the nuanced language of the passuk. Why does the Torah speak about the conception of the child? The Tumah that a woman experiences when birthing a male child has nothing to do with the conception but rather is a function of the actual birth. The conception is seemingly irrelevant.
The Gemara in Brachos notes the strange language of the passuk (in the context of a different discussion) and brings a tradition from Rav Yitzchak the son of Rav Ami, who taught that the gender of the fetus is determined at the moment of conception. If the man emits seed first, his wife gives birth to a female; if the woman emits seed first, she gives birth to a male, as it is stated: “When a woman emitted seed and bore a male” (Vayikra 12:2). In fact, in a similar Gemara in Niddah (31a), Chazal point out that Dinah is described as the daughter of Yaakov whereas the Shevatim are described as the sons of Leah because Yaakov emitted his seed first by the conception of Dinah whereas Leah emitted her seed first by the conception of the Shevatim.
This is a strange Gemara indeed. Let us put aside for a moment any scientific difficulties we may encounter in this Gemara and we are still left with a puzzling question. If the man emits his seed first one would naturally assume that the child will be a male. If the wife emits her seed first one would naturally assume that the child will be female. And yet our Gemara indicates that the exact opposite is true. Somehow the husband yields a daughter and the wife yields a son. Clearly, there is a more profound message that this Gemara is communicating, though the deeper lesson at this point still eludes us.
Marriage - A Harmony of Opposites
One could argue that the greatest prank that God ever pulled is giving us the Mitzvah of marriage. God created men and women with two very different natures and then commands us to become one!?! This is like asking us to merge fire and water! Their very essence makes it impossible. Either the fire will evaporate the water or the water will extinguish the fire but they cannot coexist. In order for intimacy to occur there must be a shared essence that allows for a merging.
The Alter Rebbe, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, explains that the male species is identified with the attribute of chesed (loving kindness) while the female species is identified with the attribute of gevurah (strength). And while once again these two attributes appear to be diametrically opposed to one another the truth is much more complex. Every one of the sefiros is actually comprised of all of the other sefiros. Chesed, for example, includes gevurah and vice versa. When a father disciplines his child, while it appears to be an act of gevurah, it is also an act of chesed. We say no to a child who wants candy before bed time (gevurah) so that the child can have a good night's sleep and have an excellent day tomorrow (chesed). We say no to a child who wants to skip school (gevurah) so that the child can receive a meaningful education which will open up important doors in the future (chesed). The action is an expression of gevurah but the motivation is one of chesed. The opposite is true as well. Sometimes, giving a child too much is not act of chesed at all. It requires gevurah to turn it into an act of chesed. Spoiling a child is certainly easier than creating boundaries but ultimately it leaves the child with a false sense of entitlement that can have a crippling long term impact. By tempering our chesed with gevurah we allow the love to truly be experienced. While chesed and gevurah initially were seen as opposed to one another we can now see that they share a basic essence. This is what allows each side to complement the other when they are united. When Chesed recognizes the middah of gevruah that resides within itself and when gevurah recognizes the middah of chesed that resides within itself, the result is harmony and intimacy.
The same is true of marriage. Marriage is not the union of two opposing forces. It is the finding of our spouse within our own soul. Love is not simply giving. It is the act of searching in ourselves for our counterpart. Though the husband may embody the middah of chesed, there is gevurah within chesed. The act of pulling back the male chesed to discover the female gevruah that lies within, is what reveals the oneness of our souls. The external expression is giving but the internal process is one of discovery. The same is true for women as well. When a woman pulls back her female gevruah to discover her inner chesed, there she finds her husband. Not outside of herself but within her very being is where her mate can be found. Far from being a cosmic joke, marriage is the most natural process in the world. It is the revelation of the harmony that exists within the complex. It is the symmetry of that which appears to be chaotic.
The Byproduct of Intimacy
With all of this in mind we can now return to our initial question. How is it that the Gemara can maintain that if the husband emits seed first the child will be female and if the wife emits seed first the child will be male? Should it not be exactly the opposite? The Gemara was not speaking scientifically. It was giving us an insight into the nature of intimacy, the byproduct of which is a child. For when a man (chesed) discovers the female (gevurah) inside of himself he reveals the innermost female nature of his soul and the result is a daughter. When a woman (gevurah) discovers the male (chesed) inside of herself she reveals the innermost male nature of her soul and the result is a son. The simple meaning of our passuk now becomes clear to us. When a woman conceives, that is to say when she initiates the conception through the discovery of her male counterpart within, the result will be that she gives birth to a son. The conception, far from being irrelevant to our discussion, is at its core, for how can we discuss the tumah that results from the bearing of this child without discussing its creation?
The Revolution of Resolution
Recent studies have shown that the divorce rate is dropping. University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen found that from 2008 to 2016, the U.S. divorce rate dropped by 18 percent. While there are many factors that ought to be taken into account in understanding this recent trend perhaps one can argue that a course correction has taken place. At one point the divorce rate had risen above fifty percent. The prevailing sentiment was that if the marriage is not harmonious the best course of action would be to divorce. But tension in a marriage is not a cause for divorce. It is a cause for resolution.
Where does tension come from? Let us take, as an example, a couple who disagree about where they should go for a vacation. The husband wants to find a private beach, with a little thatch hut and spend his days gazing out across the ocean as he sips cocktails with little umbrellas coming out of the glass. The wife is more of a pioneer type who wants to hike large mountains and have the exhilarating experience of reaching the summit at sunset so she can appreciate the magnificence of the rolling hills lit up in the pinkish hue of the days end. With only one week of shared vacation time, and with all of the pressures that the year has brought, each side is in desperate need of a well deserved break. To the husband nothing could be more dreadful then one of his wife's long "death marches" as he so graciously refers to them. After months and months of working for his hard nosed boss the last thing he wants is to work hard on vacation. To the wife nothing could be more disagreeable and unpleasant then spending her day "doing nothing" at the beach. With all of this pent up energy she needs to be on the move, having adventures and feeling alive! Needless to say, the conversation as to how they should spend their vacation does not go well. The husband rolls his eyes at the suggestion that they go mountain climbing and the wife goes into her well rehearsed speech about how "we never do anything anymore." Each side leaves the conversation hurt, disappointed and with the feeling of rejection. "Doesn't my partner see how important this is to me?" they both proclaim. And in the end one side may give in to the other but no one really feels satisfied. The husband, well aware that his wife doesn't want to be at the beach, has his vacation ruined by the wife's palpable feelings of resentment. The wife, well aware that her husband does not want to be mountain climbing, has her vacation ruined by his passive aggressive comments about how we always do what you want to do. And even where they make a compromise and find a vacation that allows them to spend some days at the beach and some days mountain climbing they are still miserable because a compromise is a solution that leaves everyone unhappy.
So what is the answer? What is our couple supposed to do so that they can enjoy a rejuvenating vacation? The beginning of a solution is to first understand the problem. The problem did not begin with a power struggle over where the couple should go on a vacation. The problem began when each person prioritized themselves over the needs of their spouse. As we said above, marriage is a process of discovering our spouse within. That is true intimacy. When we enter into a dialogue with our spouse in mind, the conversation will be hallmarked by a curiosity to hear the other persons experience, an authentic openness to learning the other persons opinion and with a strong desire to satisfy the person we love. When each side brings this attitude to a potentially toxic interaction the result is harmony. No longer does each person feel that they can't get what they need because the "need" itself has changed. They are no longer fighting for themselves but for each other. True in the end they have to make a decision. They may end up going to the beach, they may end up going up hiking, they may do a combination of both or they may end up finding an innovate solution that satisfies both of their needs at once. If each spouse is trying to find the other, the activity takes on new meaning. Is there a part of the husband that would rather be on the beach than climbing a mountain, of course. Is there a part of the wife that would rather be on a nature trail then sitting by the beach, absolutely. But both of those parts are dwarfed by the overwhelming feeling that I am lucky to be with someone who has found me in their very essence. We are not just climbing a mountain or gazing at the ocean, we are finding each other. And there is no greater rejuvenating activity than the one that leaves us a little more whole than we were when we started.