On Shabbat we read two connected parashas, Tazria & Metzorah, which deal with the laws of purity and impurity. A variety of situations during a person’s life may lead a person to and can create ‘impurity’. There are approaches that are suited for each situation that creates impurity in order to change it into purity. Contrary to common Jewish opinions, a person is not forbidden to be defiled (except if he is a Cohen), however if that person desires to enter the Temple of Jerusalem, he or she must purify him or herself.
One of the greatest Jewish poets and theorists in the Middle Ages, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Spain 1075 – Israel 1141) developed a very interesting concept about the notion of impurity, which he illuminated in his philosophical book ‘HaKozari’. According to his assessment, all the defiling circumstances are connected to the concept of death. Impurity is a response to man’s encounter with death, and the process of purification is the process of moving away from death and persistently returning to life. Indeed, the most serious impurity in our Torah is when a person encounters a dead person. A person who touches a dead body or stays with him or her in the house, is defiled with severe impurity and must go through a complex process to be purified. That is why the Cohanim do not enter the cemetery except in special cases.
Death is a reality of our lives, and no one can escape it. But referring to it is an analysis, and each person may have their own interpretation of death. The person determines his or her interpretation of death according to the facts that are surrounding it. One of the more common interpretations of death is the loss of and therefor lack of connection to the ‘deep meaning’ for life which instigates one to be disconnected with the ecstasy of life and mainly conduct life in a state of triviality and inconsequentiality. If life is very finite and we all die in the end, if everything we do, act and create, is temporary_ then how can we get away with the thought that life is not infinite?
This is a human thought that many of us are familiar with, and this thought and feeling are intensified when we experience an actual encounter with the corps of a dead person. How does the Torah deal with this and does it forbid meeting the dead person? The answer to this is no. On the contrary, one of the most important mitzvahs of the Torah is the funeral and burial of the dead, a mitzvah that cannot be performed without a close encounter with the body of the dead person.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1888-1808) writes that the religiosity feelings have a tendency to focus on the sense of the nothingness of the human condition, which may lead to the experience failure and not significant in the experience of life. Belief in God’s unlimited power may bring us to become passive as a person and reconcile with reality of the tragedy. Death may be considered as a phenomenon that has been integrated into the religious experience.
But Judaism is a religion that advocates life. The Torah is called “Torat Chaim”. The mitzvot all seek to guide a person to be active and to go out of his or her comfort zone. According to our Judaism the challenge to death is for man to act, create, change and build although his or her life is finite. That is why it is necessary to keep a distance between death and the Temple – the center of Jewish life. Because the concept of death, indolence and passivity are not part of Jewish life.
This is a brave concept that is not easily achieved. Man is required to suspend his finitude and look beyond the horizon, beyond the limited human gaze, and do something very positive despite of it. God asks us to integrate into a much greater plan than the number of years that we are supposed to live.
The temple of Jerusalem was destroyed two thousand years ago, but Judaism continued to exist and continued to challenge death. This miraculous phenomenon came to light a few decades ago, when after the Holocaust, which was a severe blow to the Jewish people, the people shook off the ashes of sadness, returned to the land of their ancestors and built it with labor out of a sense of mission. The face of a nation that received so many blows turned to the future, with the hope to build a better world for the future generation. This was an amazing expression of the spirit of Judaism that has not faded.
‘Impurity’ and ‘purity’ – as outdated and irrelevant as they sound – have the power to breathe a new spirit into the heart of every person, a spirit that gives trust and expresses confidence. This is our heavenly and godly spirit that says to every person: You are welcome to live!
Rabbi Refael Cohen