Concepts of purity, impurity are vital


The world that fills our mind has all kinds of connections; feelings and associations that result from our experiences: love, fear, anger, yearning, sorrow. These feelings then turn around and color our thinking in a profound kind of way. They act as “filters” by which we judge the data that makes up our experiences. Who we are; the nature of our character is the result of this interplay of thought and feeling.

It is with this kind of sensitivity in mind that the Torah introduces a major theme this week; that of “Tum’ah” and “Taharah” — impurity and purity. Sometimes these states are referred to as “uncleanness” and “cleanness.” In fact, while there are times that they may be affected by physical considerations, such as childbirth; skin eruptions (“leprosy”) or contact with a corpse, the “uncleanness” or “cleanness” has nothing to do with any physical “dirt,” but rather with the spiritual or emotional association that goes along with it.

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As to value; while being in a state of purity might be considered “good” and being in a state of impurity might be considered “bad,” it’s really not that simple. There are circumstances when doing something that renders one impure is actually “good!” For example the work of the Chevre Kadisha (the group of individuals who prepare the body for burial) renders all their members “tamei” — impure, yet it is considered “holy” work and a great mitzvah. Childbirth renders the mother “t’me’ah” (impure), yet it is the foundation of human survival.

On the surface, this particular way of viewing reality eludes our modern sensibilities. Looking below the surface, we can notice that there are two themes which are at the heart of this way of looking at reality: Human sexuality and death which appear to exist at the extreme ends of the life’s spectrum. For example, childbirth is obviously linked to the issue of human sexuality while leprosy which describes types of decomposition of the skin, is linked to death. What is noteworthy about these two issues is the effect they play on human emotions.

In its brilliance, the Torah finds ways for us to understand the tremendous weight these experiences carry in discovering who we are as human beings as we face the question of our ultimate worth always aware of our mortality and our frailty.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.