Purity is About Having Awe and Humility
Does your spiritual practice still leave you struck with awe and wonder? Do you still approach your religious devotion in a way which shows humility? Essentially that is what the topic of ritual purity is about. And that is what we are going to discuss this week, ritual purity. As it will be the central topic these next few parashiot.
But before we get there we need to catch ourselves up on this topic. The topic of ritual purity is certainly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be something that we avoid or shy away from. We just need to pick up this story where we have left off.
In last week’s parsha study we learned about the seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan (the tabernacle). And then we presumably stepped into the eighth day, the first day it is open for regular business. And on that day Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), lay dead by an act of G-d. Just as fire had also consumed the offerings after the end of the seven days, so too fire came down and consumed these two men for bringing some sort of aish zara – extraneous fire – into the holy grounds, there on the eighth day.
In response to this the narrative is interrupted, and the kohanim (priests) are given laws to keep from also suffering the same terrible fate. They are taught regarding mourning, being urged to avoid impurity from contact of the dead. And also given the laws prohibiting intoxication during temple service, so that one should not die for this reason. (suggesting this might have been a contributing factor, see Parshat Shemini 2012)
Almost naturally the story progresses about issues of purity, so as to avoid another one of these cases. This also can make us suspect something they did jeopardized their purity or the sanctify of the sacred space. Therefore now the Israelites needed to be taught in detail how to avoid impurity. These two kohanim did something that wasn’t exactly forbidden, but it wasn’t appropriate and therefore they actually perished on account of their error. For this reason within the text the topic of purity from here on is going to be quite specific, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.
I want us to remember as we read this that the details are so intense because these laws are being given to a newly liberated slave people. These are the people fresh over the border, new to freedom and not so civilized yet. They are dusty migrants, they are not some sort of polished and manicured people on the grand tour. They are not so clean, and quite prone to the uncouth. From here on we are going to be taught everything from eating, to dealing with a discharge. Why? Because we didn’t know!
It’s hard for us to understand this, because Jews are often maligned as eternally being a prissy sort of people, born with a hyper-vigilance to sanitation. But understand the world comes to this conclusion after seeing how of our religion has progressed us in this matter, both biblically and rabbinically. But before that we were much like our neighbors, and it wasn’t pretty.
We talk a lot about fire in this book, fire is essentially needed for this temple service to be performed. But it’s something that is not really spoken about until this the story of Nadav and Avihu. But if we think about it, if they brought fire with them in a pan, where do we think there got it from? Where was this extraneous and alien fire from? I have an idea. If we consider the common cultures of the time, we can get a pretty good idea what was wrong with the fire they brought.
It might come as a terrible surprise to modern people, but it’s quite obvious to people who have done much classical reading, that in the old days bonfires were often fueled with dung. Most commonly animal dung, which herding societies produce in bulk. But in many cases, people even use human dung. Use of dung in this way is especially true in dry and non-wooded regions, like a desert. To this day animal dung is still commonly used as fuel, except in the modern age it is industrially dried and processed first before use for maximum fuel output. Odd but true.
If we take the story of Nadav and Avihu literally and simply as an issue of purity, it is a good assumption that maybe these two erred when they failed to create a new fire or take from another sacred source in order to light the altar with. Instead they could have just taken a flaming chip (קיסם) from a dung fueled fire. They might have cut corners, and in doing so took something alien and putrid into the sacred space. Thus showing a disrespect and irreverence for G-d, and their sacred service.
A hint of this possibility seems to peak out to us from the text of a dramatic act from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, who himself was a kohen – a priest, descended from the line of Itamar. He is once told to bake cakes over a fire of dung and eat it in the presence of all the people to see:
“And as barley cakes you shall eat it, and they shall bake it with human excrement before their eyes.
“And Hashem said, ‘So will the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall drive them.’
“And I said, ‘O L-RD G-d, behold my soul has not been defiled, neither have I eaten from an animal that died by itself and was torn [by beasts], from my youth until this day, and no loathsome meat has ever entered my mouth.’
“So He said to me, ‘See! I have given you cattle dung instead of human excrement, and you shall prepare your bread upon it.’”
וְעֻגַת שְׂעֹרִים, תֹּאכְלֶנָּה; וְהִיא, בְּגֶלְלֵי צֵאַת הָאָדָם–תְּעֻגֶנָה, לְעֵינֵיהֶם.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ, כָּכָה יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-לַחְמָם טָמֵא, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַדִּיחֵם שָׁם.
וָאֹמַר, אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְיָ, הִנֵּה נַפְשִׁי, לֹא מְטֻמָּאָה; וּנְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה לֹא-אָכַלְתִּי מִנְּעוּרַי וְעַד-עַתָּה, וְלֹא-בָא בְּפִי בְּשַׂר פִּגּוּל.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי–רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶת-צפועי (צְפִיעֵי) הַבָּקָר, תַּחַת גֶּלְלֵי הָאָדָם; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-לַחְמְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם.
Notice by the end of the First Temple Period, all these years later, Ezekiel is told to tell the people to get used to the ways of the nations, because this was what they were going to live like in exile. While Ezekiel is among the prophets who is most often willing to go along with G-d’s form of performance art, here he can’t get beyond his refined sensibilities in knowing this is vile. G-d still makes Ezekiel follow through. In the end with cow dung instead, but still it is something that is shockingly vile to the common people (not just to priests like himself) all these centuries later.
But notice when the prophet makes his objections he starts talking about the issues of purity that seem to very much march in step with the prohibitions of Leviticus. He starts with saying he has never defiled his soul in such ways. Not even with carcasses of animals which dropped dead on their own, nor animals which are torn apart by predators; nor has he ever consumed any other type of repulsive flesh (basar pigul).
Interestingly, starting in the sixth reading of Parshat Shemini we see these relating laws similarly laid out for us, right after all this drama with Nadav and Avihu is laid to rest. We begin with animals, and what is forbidden meat (basar) and what is proper. As the temple cult surrounded the offering of sacrifices, we start with the most obvious. We begin to define what animals are clean and which are not, to possibly ensure that they do not err in this matter as well. So that priests don’t bring treif into the sanctuary!
And next we follow-up with the details of purity regarding the human animal. Which is what we immediately begin to discuss as we open this week’s parsha. We get beyond purity which is merely based upon something extraneous, and begin to have to consider purity of our own person.
This weeks parsha makes us look at issues of purity within the realm of our own bodies, with impurity which at some times even bubbles and oozes from our own person. That is what this parsha discusses at length – the subject of tzara‘at, skin disorders. That is the one of the only thing which it discusses, really, except for in the first eight verses which discuss the birthing of humans. It touches on blood purity after birth, both of mother and child. And also details the sacrificial rituals that the mother is supposed to perform after the time of uncleanliness and rest has passed. (see Parshat Tazria-Metzorah 2013)
Certainly up until now we have been talking about an issue of laws and purity, and it is easy for us to assume that these laws are only in place for the Levites. But here we see laws which apply to everyone, all of us because we are all born. All of us, as we all have illness.
But these commandments, they are obvious that they apply to us. We would not dare say otherwise. As the first series of them is about a birth of a boy and lays down the law of the brit milah – circumcision. Our key verse for this week reads:
“And on the eighth day,
you shall circumcise
the flesh of his foreskin
| U’vayom hashemini
| basar ar’elato
This is the highest mitzvah of all – the kick-off mitzvah of Jewish life. The mitzvah which literally embodies all the rest. A mitzvah, performed on the eighth day. Coincidence that this commandment comes down to us eight days into the story of this new temple worship in the Mishkan? Who can say, but it’s an interesting connection.
Indeed we know these commands are for all the people, because that is how our parsha opens. “Vayedaber Hashem el Mosheh laimor, daber el bnei Yisrael / And Hashem said to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel…” And this isn’t the first place. The tone transitions from being mere commands to the priest back when we began to discuss the purity of animals in Parshat Shemini, there too G-d speaks to Moses, to tell Aharon and his sons, who is in turn to pass these instructions down to the Israelites. Just as we see here in this parsha as well.
After that eighth day G-d begins to give all the people instructions on how to safeguard this new form of worship. How to protect this new and sacred thing which returned the presence of G-d into their lives, so as not jeopardize it or themselves. Commands which needed to be observed by all the people, not just the priests in charge.
This Mishkan offered the people their connection to G-d, through the daily tamid offering. It provided a tangible way of knowing that G-d dwelt among them. It also additionally offered atonement for them through the additional offerings. But now that this new thing dwelt among them, they had to begin to act in a more appropriate way. They were now in the presence of Hashem, the King of all glory.
So staring from here on G-d begins to hand down laws which govern purity for the children of Israel, in both diet and in body.
When it discusses the issues of the body, as in our parsha this week, it starts out logically at the beginning with birth, then circumcision, etc. Almost chronologically touching on the ritual impurities associated with just living life itself, because life is messy.
Though this Mishkan was a way of connecting with G-d, it also came with a huge amount of responsibility. Though it offered them closeness to G-d, the people could not approach G-d when ever they wanted. Be they priests, or common Israelite. There needed to be a certain level of purity maintained. Not just in what they brought, but also in how they brought themselves.
With this holy service of the Mishkan in place, G-d commands the people going forward. We read this right at the end of chapter 11, in the summarization of when G-d tells them to keep away from the creeping things of the ground:
“You should not make your soul detestable with any creeping creatures which creeps. You shall not make yourselves unclean.
“For I am Hashem your G-d; you should sanctify yourselves, and be holy, because I am holy; so neither should you defile yourself with any type of swarming thing that moves on the ground.
“For I am Hashem that brought out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.”
אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם.
כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.
Here we get several warming about ritual purity. First, don’t make oneself tamei – ritually impure. Why? It’s obvious to us, because if they do they cannot enter into the Temple complex. If they make ourselves detestable, they cannot approach G-d. Second, they need to actively sanctify themselves. And third, the children of Israel are commanded to be holy because they are G-d’s possession, and therefore by extension it is their duty to be holy.
I know this is a long study. I apologize, I feel like I should have stopped a bit ago. But I do need us to understand this before we move on, and I also want to try to touch on something that is inspirational, which is hard to do sometimes when we go systematically through the Torah. Especially when it takes us through some pretty foul places. But we need to touch on one point, something that is lost to us because our experience of worship is much different today in a post-temple reality.
The fact is that temple worship was not at all like synagogue service we have today. People could not just go when ever they wanted. And the primary reason, was because of issues of purity. The Rambam notes this in one of his classics:
“I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command,” You shall reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words:” Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend” (Prov. 25:17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean…”
Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed
In order for a person to go up to the Miskhan or Temple they needed to sanctify themselves. They had to wash themselves and keep themselves away from things which might make them unclean.
Rambam begins to note each one of these forms of impurity which are mentioned here in this part of Leviticus. And he notes that even if a person hasn’t made himself completely tumah (impure) by touching a dead body, there are many other ways we see here where a man can be defiled and therefore render himself disqualified to enter the sanctuary. By something we touch, or by something we eat. By sexual cohabitation, or by bodily affliction. The Rambam notes that even if one were to avoid all these things, a man can be made unclean by something as simple as being touched by creeping creatures (toads, lizards, rodents, etc; see Leviticus 11:29-31).
Fact is, the average citizen could not always be holy. The average Israelite wasn’t pure enough to come just any time. He had to make the effort, mindful of his ritual purity in order to enable him to approach the temple complex when he needed to.
The facts of real life are that people can’t always be completely ritually pure, because sometimes things cross our paths that jeopardize one’s cleanliness (like a creeping creature running over your foot), or having your food tainted. Or simple by something completely natural, like giving birth or if one is discharging. Nothing of no one’s fault at all. Nonetheless it restricted people from entrance.
This is noted by the Rambam as well, as he also gives us a reason why Israel should give heed and follow these laws of purity. He also spells out again what the intention is behind these laws:
“All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well-known, said, ‘Even a clean person may not enter the Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath.’ By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.”
Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III
If people expect to give an offering or even himself serve before G-d, he needs to wash himself up. Even if he thinks he is clean. He further needs to examine his habits and his person. One needs to examine themselves and ask if they are really in such a state of purity of being and intention. One is forced to continuously ask themselves if they are really coming to G-d out of reverence. The Rambam is of the opinion this is the intended purpose of the laws of purity to produce a conscious level of humility inside people.
Today for religious Jews do not live in the shadow of the Mishkan or the Temple. We do not have that embody our connection to G-d. In this new reality we perform a different avodah – a different type of service than that of the Temple cult. We don’t sacrifice. We don’t have that constantly burning tamid offering in the midst of our camp to stoke, to remind us that we are holy.
We have a different type of relationship before G-d, we offer up prayer and the words of our lips as our sacrifices. (Isaiah chapter 1) We offer our prayers in synagogues, and not in a sacrosanct Temple. We get to come daily if we want to, not just when ever we are found to be pure and therefore permitted. We have a tamid too – an eternal offering which we get to offer; an offering which we offer in prayer daily.
Though tamid has a different application today than it did during the Temple period, our duty to strive for purity along with our Holy G-d remains. And when we remember and keep the commandments of purity, instead of them focusing around an altar they most often focus around the dinner table. This is how this doctrine of purity has reached to us from then until now.
We don’t need to complicated the topic of offerings. We understand what the symbolism of tamid offerings (Heb. perpetual, continuous) is for, if we think about it. As our sages teach us this, that it is because our duty before G-d is a daily thing which takes constant work. Our spirituality is something we work at daily.
And like those who worshiped in the Temple, we need to be mindful to daily approach our service before G-d with humility and self-inspection. We can’t ever assume that we are just worthy. We also need to maintain the understanding that precisely because we have a duty before G-d, that is the reason we must constantly inspect the purity of ourselves and our ways. We can’t ever lose respect and humility in our daily service before G-d, or else our sense of sanctity is lost.
Our Point to Consider This Week: Part of showing respect for G-d is displayed through exemplifying humility. On one hand it might be logical that being humble as servants of such an amazing G-d as ours would be near impossible. After all, we are called to serve as laborers of Hashem in this world, with so many holy mitzvot to perform. However it is precisely because of this that we should show even more humility yet. We should ask ourselves this week: Do I perform my service before G-d with intentionality and with self-reflection, along with the awe and humility that should come with such an honor?