The Importance of Being Impure

19 Jun

The word tamah is found the Torah in a variety of contexts – animals can be tameh, items can acquire as status of being tameh, and certain actions can make a person tameh. The word tameh and its opposite – tahor– are difficult to translate.  I usually translate the word as meaning ritually impure, to indicate that it not related to physical cleanliness or social status.

Suffice it say that the status of being tameh has no practical repercussions in our world today.  In fact, all of us are considered to be tameh on the highest level, having been in direct contact with dead or someone else who has had that contact.  And, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it without the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem and special purifying waters of the red heifer.

Speaking of the red heifer, the preparation of the ashes of this unique animal is couched in great mystery.  Chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers (this week’s parasha, Chukat) teaches that although the ashes of the red heifer have the inexplicable power to purify all those who have been rendered impure, contact with those very same ashes for those who are pure has the opposite effect… it makes them impure! Therefore, the one who slaughters the red heiffer, the one who burns the ashes, the one who gathers the ashes, and the one who sprinkles the ashes and water combination on an impure person – all of these become impure in the process of providing a means for purification by another!

The rabbis considered this precept to be the deepest mystery of the Torah. They even claimed that even King Solomon, who was said to have been the wisest of all human beings who ever lived, who understood every aspect of God’s creation, even  he was unable to fathom the secret of the red heifer.

I would, humbly, like to make a suggestion…..

It is important to become impure – tameh It is only through becoming tameh that we can accomplish some of the most revered actions that make us human.When a woman gives birth, she becomes impure.When we bury our dead, we become impure.When we come in contact with certain creatures in the world that are tameh or other persons who are tameh, so too, we become tameh.

But there is nothing bad about becoming tameh.

Writes the Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed,(Section 3, Chapter 47), that the whole reason that God commanded us in the laws of tumah is for the purpose of making it very difficult for us to frequent the Temple!  That is to say, in order to keep us at a distance form the Temple, God placed before us many obstacles of “impurity” that would render us unfit to enter into the Temple precincts.

For what reason would God want to keep us out of the Temple?  As it says it in the Talmud, “It is not good to enter into the Temple at any time you want.” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 7) It seems that the rabbis understood well that frequent visits to the Temple would break down the sense of reverence and awe and one should experience when entering there.

However, I would take it a step further.  The rabbis didn’t want us to spend our lives detached from the real world around us.  The Temple is like a world unto itself – a place of great inspiration – the “House of God.” That’s not where we are meant to be.  We are meant to be living in the real world, involved in the day-to-day needs of the world.  That is our purpose here. For this reason, it was important to be impure – for impurity was an indication that you were not disconnected from your human responsibilities.There is, I would suggest, a very important lesson here, in the story of the red heifer.

In order to get to taharah, in order to reach the lofty goals in a society, in order to reach out and bring those on the fringes of the community back into finding their place within the community – you have got to be prepared to become tameh – and there is nothing to be ashamed of in doing so – in fact, it’s a badge of courage, an indication that you have your priorities in the right place. 

Purity in life is meant to be an island amidst a life of impurity. Those who choose to live aloof of the world around them have failed to comprehend this very powerful lesson, taught to us by the strange laws of preparing the red heifer.  

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One Response to “The Importance of Being Impure”

  1. Deena Schwartz Wednesday, June 20, 2007 at 8:24 am #

    Fascinating. I really liked the message this week. It makes a lot of sense.
    Carry on:)

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