Jewish Philosophy

Impurity and Purity – Mind, Soul and Spirit Over Matter
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Wednesday 2nd April 2014

The Rambam (Maimonides d.1204) writes that the laws of impurity and purity are a matter of Divine decree, statutes which cannot be fully fathomed by human intellect. When the Temple stood, there were misdeeds for which part of the teshuva process included immersing in a mikvah (a pool for ritual immersion). The Rambam explains that this method of spiritual purification is an incomprehensible statute. Nonetheless, in those cases it was contingent on a person’s heartfelt intent that the immersion should serve to purify himself/ herself.

The Rambam continues with a powerful analogy. One who wished to sincerely repent and remove the negative imprint of previous sin should ‘conclude in their heart to detach oneself from negative ways and instead to immerse oneself in the waters of knowledge, thus becoming pure.’ So too immersion in a mikveh, coupled with a total desire to purify oneself, was effective.

In this week’s sidrah, the Torah presents the purification process of the metzorah (person afflicted with a leprous-like disease, rooted in a spiritual malaise). The Torah instructs that special attention be paid to three critical parts of the body - the hair, beard (for men) and eyebrows, which were all to be shorn. The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz d. 1619) explains why these areas in particular are singled out. The head, held in inappropriately haughty manner – literally and/or figuratively – is representative of arrogance. The beard, growing around the mouth, is associated with ‘lashon hara’ (slander). The eyes are sometimes guilty of viewing others’ successes in a petty or grudging way.

The metzorah, whose very title is understood to allude to the words motzi ra (one who has brought forth bad things), had to now focus on ‘becoming detached from negative ways’, as the Rambam quoted earlier describes it. His/her goal was to now strive for the purity known to those who ‘immerse themselves in the waters of knowledge’. A significant indicator of the metzorah’s sincere desire to embrace a more noble and generous-spirit was inherent in the embracing of a rehabilitative process which involved the shaving of all adorning hair from around those parts of the body which had been used for arrogance.

In similar vein, the Shem Mi’Shmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein d.1926) resolves an apparent inconsistency. On the one hand, the Torah says that the metzorah was to be ‘brought to the Kohen’. Yet the very next phrase says that the ‘Kohen was to go outside of the camp’ to ascertain whether or not the metzorah had been cleansed of impurity (Vayikra 14:2-3). The Shem Mi’Shmuel understands the first phrase as denoting the metzorah’s unilateral, utterly sincere quest to abandon the negative ways of the past and to draw close – to be ‘brought’ – to the Kohen. When a metzorah had achieved that heartfelt yearning, then the Kohen would indeed be able to leave the main encampment to go out to visit the metzorah and pronounce him/her to be cleansed of any spiritual ailment.

Clearly purification was not just a matter of protocol and ritual. These acts were clearly essential to cleanse oneself of previous misdeeds. However, the deeper agenda was to create a better reality and mindset, rooted in a determined commitment to eschew previous ways and instead embrace a more elevated life.


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