Tazriah – Metzorah תשפא
This week’s Torah portions are replete with references to the concepts of טומאה – tumah and טהרה – tahara, what we call “spiritually unclean and spiritually clean.” These concepts have no parallel in the secular world, so they may be difficult to grasp at first, but the goal of this piece is to give you a basic framework for understanding them.
These laws are the basis for many laws in the Torah primarily relevant to the Holy Temple and its service. People and vessels can become tamei – spiritually unclean, and need to undergo a process of purification to restore them to their tahor – spiritually clean state. The process for this in most cases is immersion in a body of natural water, a mikvah. Initially, these laws look like decrees from Hashem which defy our understanding, but upon deeper analysis, they yield valuable insights into the human condition.
A brief look at the etymology of the two words reveals their intrinsic characteristics. In לשון הקןדש – the holy language that the Torah and books of the Tanach are written in – every letter has a unique meaning which contributes to the meaning of the words it creates. It follows from this that certain combinations of letters share a common concept. This is the case with the two letters “ט” and “מ”. When these letters are combined at the beginning of a word, they always signal a blockage or lack of transparency. The word טמם means to fill up, as in filling up a pit with dirt. Thus, the essential meaning of טמא is that it obscures one’s perception of reality and makes things muddied and unclear. The two letters “ט” and “ה” on the other hand signify clarity and transparency. טיהרה means daylight, when you can see everything clearly. These two words are opposites.
Adam was created with a soul that was a portion of Hashem, hewn from under Hashem’s Chair of Glory. This holy soul is tahor and the source of man’s spirituality and the force of good within him. Opposed to this, is the bodymade from the dust of the earth. The body is the source of one’s evil inclination and tumah.
These two components of a person were not always opposed to each other. We read in Genesis 2:25:
(כה) וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְלֹא יִתְבּשָׁשׁוּ
25) And they were both naked, man and his wife, and they were not embarrassed from each other.
This is because prior to the sin, there was no contradiction between their bodies and their souls. The soul’s holiness overwhelmed Adam’s body, so it was a willing servant to his soul. Body and soul were unified in the service of Hashem. Our Sages teach us that prior to the sin, Adam and Eve wore כתנות אור “garments of light” which means that they were transparent. Their insides and their outsides were equally pure. They could not act one way externally and feel differently internally. Their bodies and souls were united.
However, after eating from the tree of knowledge good and bad, the evil entered into Adam and Eve, and their bodies became earthy, an opposing force to their souls. Their bodies now wanted to partake of pleasures that would satisfy them, even though they were not sanctioned by the soul. This tension between the body and soul now caused Adam and Eve to feel shame and embarrassment from their bodies, which were created to complement their souls, but now were in competition with it.
This is what the Torah reveals immediately after they ate from the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:7).
(ז) וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת
7) The eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked, and they sewed together a fig leaf and made themselves aprons.
Hence, the body had to be covered up and its influence minimized because it now had a mind of its own with its own agenda to satisfy.
Now that evil has become an integral part of man, man’s goal in life is to harness and utilize his body for Hashem’s work by controlling it with his soul. He does this through learning Torah and performing the mitzvot, holy actions which sanctify the body. Through being the apprentice to the soul and allowing it to perform these holy acts, the body itself becomes holy. In this way, through one’s life of learning Torah and performing the mitzvot, man slowly works his way back to how Adam and Eve were before the sin when the body was completely holy. Eliyahu the Prophet is an example of someone who accomplished this in his lifetime. He therefore did not die. He went to heaven as a whole person.
On the other hand, when the body seeks to satisfy its own urges and desires against the better judgment of the soul which wants only to fulfill Hashem’s will, the forbidden actions the body takes generate tumah. The body is presenting that the purpose for creation is the fulfillment of its whims and wills. The correct path and true purpose for creation has become obscured and marginalized. This is the hallmark of tumah; it creates confusion and blocks the way to holiness and closeness to Hashem.
The antidote to tumah is immersion in a mikvah, a special body of water. When a tamei person’s entire body, every part – bar none, immerses in a mikvah, he emerges tahor. How does this work and what is the idea?
A mikvah is a collection of about 150 gallons of water in a receptacle, enough to cover the whole body of the one immersing. What is special about the waters of the mikvah is that no human hand is allowed to have any part in the gathering of the waters. They must reach the basin on their own without the involvement or touch of the human hand. Once a kosher mikvah has been created, it cannot become tamei no matter what tamei things you put in it. On the contrary, it will render tahor anything that is put in it (if it is eligible for purification in a mikvah). This follows the rule, המחובר לטהור – טהור – whatever is connected to something tahor, itself becomes tohar.
When one immerses, he is supposed to dissolve his “self” to the waters as if he doesn’t exist anymore. (Our bodies feel weightless when we are in a pool of water.) All that is left of him is his soul. When he emerges, it is as if he has acquired a new body, and he emerges as a new person.
The pristine waters of the mikvah, absent human involvement, represent the pure waters of Eden which preceded man. Immersing in the mikvah water is designed to mentally bring a person back to before man sinned to the point where his body was a partner to his soul.
Another metaphor for the waters of the mikvah is the embryonic fluid that one was in when in utero. Immersing in the mikvah is like a return to the womb. Immersion in the mikvah expresses complete surrender to the will of Hashem as the body returns to its earliest roots where it was the faithful servant of the soul. If a person achieves that state of mind, he has successfully restored the correct mindset – that the body should be the servant of the soul- and he is once again tahor.
Now that there is no Holy Temple, men are not obligated to immerse in a mikvah. Nevertheless, it is common practice for men to immerse in a mikvah before Shabbat or a festival to add holiness to one’s life. The lessons of the mikvah are still relevant and it brings a person a feeling of holiness and renewal.
Eating from the tree of knowledge good and bad had another disastrous result; death to man. Before the sin, man was completely good through and through, so he could live forever, because good is eternal. But when evil entered man and became an integral part of him, he had to die because evil cannot live forever. Evil will always meet its just end, it has no place in Hashem’s world.
As long as a person is alive, the soul is connected to the body and the body itself cannot become the most potent type of tumah. When death occurs, the soul – the source of life – leaves the body. When the soul of a Jew leaves his body, the body is tamei to the highest degree. So potent is this tumah that anyone in the room becomes tamei. Death of the human being is the greatest source of tumah that there is.
This is easy to understand because death can create the greatest doubt in Hashem and His judgments. We are so often perplexed as to why children die, and why others endure such painful and difficult deaths. The Holocaust, Covid – 19; the questions have no end and more daunting, no answers. We are flummoxed. Death is the greatest source of tumah in our world.
The purification process for one who has come in contact with a dead body requires the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him. Nothing less will do.
The red heifer is known as the “חק”- “The ultimate decree” (a rule that defies logic) in the Torah. This is because its ashes render the ones who have created it – tamei , and the people who have those very ashes sprinkled on them, tahor. Even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, could not understand this paradox.
This being said, the Torah is telling us that the only way to become tahor from the tumah of a dead body is to sacrifice your mind completely to Hashem, and place your trust completely in Him. True, you do not understand Hashem’s rationale, but you know that He is good and only acts out of love for his people. You can rest assured that Hashem has our best interest in mind, and that this will be good for us in the long run. You must not question Hashem because it is impossible for us to understand His calculations which my span hundreds or even thousands of years.
These are very broad and general ideas about tomei and tahor just to give an idea of what it’s about. Even though the laws of tamei and tahor are not obligatory since we don’t have the Holy Temple, there is still a very important lesson to be learned. The battle between the two forces within every one of us is real, and we must work to augment our soul power to harness our earthy lusts and desires by doing the Torah and the mitzvot. This will minimize our earthly desires and allow us to come closer to Hashem, the greatest source happiness.