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This week, we hear about ritual purity and impurity, of Tumah and Tahara - we get these laws about strange diseases, bodily emissions, and all kinds of odd purification rituals. And despite all the work we did last week, trying to give ourselves a better sense of how to relate to such strange concepts, there are still quite a few loose ends.
David: Last week, we suggested that death is the thread that ties the cases of tumah together, or, more precisely, it is a brush with mortality. Coming into contact with a dead body, going through childbirth, having a seminal emission, and avoiding a carnivorous animal - all of these events sensitize us to life, and loss of life - they remind us that we are mortal.
However, later on in the book of Leviticus, the Torah seems to use the word “tumah” as a negative word, to describe the violation of certain sins. For example, after listing a few laws regarding sexuality and idolatry, God says: אַל-תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה - don’t make yourselves tamei by trangressing these. But wait - last week, we explained that there’s nothing inherently wrong with birth, or even menstruation, and that the resulting tumah from these events are just what happens during a brush with mortality. Which is it? Is tumah a benign state? Or is it a bad thing?
Immanuel: And how does our theory fit with the different purification rituals for the different types of tumah? A Metzorah has to leave the camp, sit outside for 7 days, bring a korban, and go through his own special purification ritual. Whereas a man with a seminal emission only needs to wash himself and he’s good to go, he’s pure that evening, no waiting period necessary. What does all this have to do with mortality?
This week, we want to take a final look at the various laws of tumah and tahara, and see if we can understand the deeper meaning behind the things that make you tamei, and how to become tahor; and what we’re meant to learn from these rituals. How can we make tumah and tahara relevant in our lives? This week, on the Parsha Experiment.
David: Hi, I’m David Block.
Immanuel: And I’m Imu Shalev.
David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
Let’s take a look at the consequences of tumah and see if it can help us refine our theory about the impact a brush with mortality is meant to have on our lives.
So far, we mentioned 2 consequences of becoming tamei.
#1 The person who is tamei must leave the camp and #2 there are all kinds of purification rituals involving ritual baths and sometimes involving a korban. But both of these consequences are rooted in a concern that is mentioned at the conclusion of our parsha, and really serves as the conclusion of the entire section of tumah and tahara in the book of Leviticus. God tells Moses and Aaron: וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִטֻּמְאָתָם - And you must warn Israel about their tumah. Why? וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם, בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת-מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם - so that they don’t die by making my Mishkan tamei. In other words, the ramification of being Tamei is that one cannot enter the Mishkan. The innermost camp, which housed the mishkan, would not tolerate those who are tamei. And in order for them to re-enter the mishkan, they needed to use the purification rituals.
Immanuel: But what is the big deal? So you had a baby, or a relative in your home dies, now we gotta kick you outta the mishkan until you take a bath? And what’s the punishment if you come to the mishkan just to say thanks, or to find comfort, without going through the ritual? Death! How do we make sense of all of this, and why is there death everywhere? Death causes tumah, and death is the punishments for those who improperly handle tumah!
So we’d like to suggest a theory: Death, perhaps, is the greatest spiritual teacher we have. Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, says that it is better to visit the house of a mourner than to visit the house of feasting, for death is the end of all men, and the living will take heart. But what does that mean?
David: Most of us don’t live our days under a conscious fear of death. We’re busy with school, or building our careers, and taking care of errands. But for many people, when they face death, when they have a near-death experience, or they are diagnosed with a terminal illness, their lives change. The things that were once important to them are no longer important. Making more money to keep up with the Joneses, working hard for that big promotion, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Other things that fell by the wayside matter so much more now. What is the quality of my relationships? Have I spent as much time with my family as I wanted to? Can I repair a broken friendship? Do I feel close to God?
Immanuel: Strangely, it is death that reminds us about what is important in life. And this may go back to the very first mention of death in the Torah. Back in the Garden of Eden, when God charged Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, He also gives a consequence if it’s violated: כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ--מוֹת תָּמוּת - for on the day that you eat from it, you shall surely die. The problem is, we know that when Adam and Eve do eat from the tree, they don’t die. So God must’ve not have meant that you will die then; instead, God meant that when you eat from the tree, you’ll become susceptible to death. Before mankind ate from the tree they would live forever, now they’ve become mortal.
Why? Perhaps God was saying this: If you can keep to my one law, you’ll show me that you understands that I, God, am your Source. I am life and by clinging to my laws, you cling to life. As long as you always remember that, you can live eternally. But if you eat from the tree, it shows that you follow your own rules… you deny the source of your life.
David: In a world where man can turn his back on God, the concept of death is necessary. When man knows he won’t live forever, when man faces death, he is encouraged to accept his own mortality and to cling to the only being in His universe who is eternal: God. At the house of a mourner, we say: “hamakom yinachem etcham” - May “The Place” comfort you - we use the name “the place,” hamakom, to refer to God - to give a mourner who is experiencing tremendous loss, a sense of perspective, to remind them that we all derive from the same place, and are destined to return to the same place.
Death, or at least the prospect of death, is the antidote to human arrogance. It’s a built-in failsafe mechanism. When we confront our own mortality, when our perspectives are re-aligned, we tend to shake off our temporal, material priorities in favor of our eternal, spiritual ones: our relationships with our loved ones, and our closeness to God.
Immanuel: But what if we ignore the wake-up call? What if we avoid the house of the mourner and prefer to visit the house of feasting? When we’re not sensitive to death, when we step over the reminders in our lives of what truly matters, we end up living a hollow life. When we forget that our time is limited, we might take the boss’s call and duck out on our daughter’s play, and we might leave off the pursuit of spirituality so that some older, retired version of ourselves can play catch-up with God. Worse, we might never end up doing what we’re meant to do with our lives.
That’s where Tumah comes into the picture. God says that when you have those brushes with mortality you attain a new status, called Tamei. It’s not bad or good --- it just is. And its purpose is to force you to confront death. Death is supposed to be our wake-up call. We’re not immortal. And we shouldn’t try to pretend we are… Death reminds us that we’re not in control.
And even so, despite life’s temporality, life is meaningful. Because while death reminds us that we are mortal, it also urges us to devote ourselves to God and the spiritual pursuits that are eternal.
David: How does Tumah force us to confront our own mortality? Well, there are consequences to tumah. For one, in order to enter the camp, a person must become pure, and that purification helps reaffirm his connection to the source of life.
In most cases, the Tahara process consists of immersion in a mikvah - a body of water. Throughout Tanach and Rabbinic literature, water symbolically represents the Living God. For example, God says through Jeremiah: “אֹתִי עָזְבוּ מְקוֹר מַיִם חַיִּים” - you, Israel, have abandoned Me (God), the Fountain of Living Water. And later in Jeremiah, the symbolism of a Mikvah is repeated with a wink and a nod: מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה - the hope of Israel is God - or, God is the mikvah of Israel. When a Tamei person who has experienced a brush with mortality immerses in a mikvah, they envelope themselves in the Living God... and it symbolically reminds them of God’s eternality. When they emerge from the mikvah, they experience a rebirth, newly connected to the source of all life.
Immanuel: Beyond the mikvah, the various purification processes continue to help one reaffirm his connection to the source of life. The various purification processes differ --- each in accordance with the severity of the brush with mortality. The more serious brushes with mortality - like encountering death itself, a metzorah, a yoledet, and zav and zava --- which all pose mortal danger, have Korbanot as part of their Tahara process. As we saw in Parshat Tzav, in a way, an animal offering is a substitution, it is a symbolic representation of the giver himself. By bringing that offering, he expresses an awareness that his life belongs to God and that God is the Eternal source - of everything, including himself.
In the more severe cases of tumah, before these tamei individuals can complete their purification process, they have to wait for a certain number of days. And perhaps the reason why they wait gets to the heart of Tumah and Tahara. The Tahara rituals are not just heeby jeeby actions that magically make someone pure. A person needs to stop and contemplate what just happened to them. The loss of a loved one, the sickness of the metzora, their korban as a conduit to give themselves over to God, and their spiritual rebirth through the mikvah. It requires real confrontation with mortality, real contemplation and reflection. So, built into the process of becoming Tahor are mandatory waiting periods - days that can be used to deeply consider and reflect.
David: And finally, we know that a person who is tamei may not enter the mishkan. Why not? Because a person who is tamei has not yet confronted his own mortality, he has not yet gone through the contemplation and the rituals that reaffirm his connection to the source of life. When a person ignores the signs of his mortality, he strolls into the mishkan like he owns the place, without sensitivity to the source of life who dwells within. That person thereby casts testimony that God is not the Creator, that He’s not eternal, that he’s not part of God’s system.
And, perhaps that’s why Adam and Eve, besides for becoming mortal, were given another consequence: they were kicked out of God’s garden. When they chose to live in the illusion that they were in control, well, that’s incompatible with the reality of God. They can no longer live in God’s home in this world. And if eating from the tree made Adam and Eve tamei, then we now understand a deeper layer of Tahara - Tahara is the state of mankind before the sin. In that sense, Tahara is not so much a positive state as it is a return to one’s regular, natural, pre-brush-with-mortality state. Being “Tahor,” then, means the ability - the potential - to live in God’s garden.
Immanuel: Now we understand why the punishment for a person who enters the mishkan is death. God says, for the person who ignores tumah, the prospect of death, as a wakeup call to come back to Me, the only thing left for him is actual death. So Moses, please warn the people to be careful in their tumah. Heed the wake up call, so it never comes to that.
Tumah and sin are not the same thing. What is sinful is ignoring your state of tumah, or purposefully bringing yourself to a state of tumah, or disconnect with God. One doesn’t attain a ritual status of tumah by transgressing sins, but by using the same word, the Torah seems to be telling us that committing sins is akin becoming tamei… When one sins, he chooses his own morality over God’s. He pretends that he’s the eternal being. Just as we do when we try to escape mortality.
David: The laws of Tumah and Taharah no longer apply today, as God no longer dwells amongst us in the mishkan. However, the remnants of tumah and tahara still exist in our practice. We wash our hands when we leave a cemetery, and we are careful to visit the mikvah. Even though we no longer have the Mishkan and we can’t do the prescribed rituals, the concepts are still just as true as ever. When we encounter human mortality, we shouldn't run away from it… we should confront it. We should take a step back and reflect and remember the Source of Life. And when we do, we’ll have the ability, once again, to connect with God.
Immanuel: Join us next week as we continue to explore the themes of Leviticus on the Parsha Experiment.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
9. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
10. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayechi: We Are Family - Culmination of Abrahamic Legacy
12. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
13. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
14. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
15. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
16. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
20. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
21. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
23. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
24. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
25. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
27. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
28. The Parsha Experiment - Acharei Mot: How Do Yom Kippur Rituals Save Us From Sins?
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
49. The Parsha Experiment - Nitzavim: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses II
50. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeilech: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah
51. The Parsha Experiment - Ha'azinu-V'Zot Habracha: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah - Part 2
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