Torah Portion stresses importance of attaining ‘spiritual purity’

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.  

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

Are you pure?

You were born pure. The traditional morning prayers contain the following blessing, which even in the Recon-structionist siddur “Kol Haneshamah” (Reconstructionists generally eschew supernaturalism), begins, “My God, the soul which you gave to me is pure…” (“Elohay, N’shamah”)

According to Scripture, spiritual purity (Tohorah) was of great concern to the ancient Israelites, especially to the Kohanim — the Israelite priests. Toward the end of Metzora, our Torah portion for this week, we learn the reason.

You shall put the Israelites on guard against impurity, lest they die because their impurity defiles my Dwelling-place, which is among them (Leviticus 15:31).

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For the Holy Divine Presence (later known as the Shekhinah) to abide among the people Israel in the Mishkan (Dwelling-place, also called the Tabernacle), it needed to be Kadosh (Holy). Spiritual purity (tohorah) was required to maintain holiness. Impurity (tumah) desecrated the Holy and jeopardized the Divine Presence remaining in the Dwelling-place.

The Torah — particularly the Book of Leviticus — has a great deal to say about purity and Impurity, but not nearly so much as our rabbinic sages. The rabbis devoted much time, effort and energy to expanding and extending the biblical attention paid to tohorah and tumah. The sages connected purity and impurity to human behavior. An example of this was their famous reading of Metzora — a person with Tzara’at (skin disorders popularly but erroneously translated as “leprosy”), which caused impurity, as “Motzi ra’” (one who brings out evil) or “Motzi shem ra’” (one who gossips). Even more telling, the Talmud records that one of Rabbi Meir’s favorite teachings, an epitome of the rabbinic outlook in this context, declares,

Guard your mouth from everything wrong, and purify and sanctify yourself from all sin and iniquity, and I [that is, God] will be with you in every place. (B’rahot 17a; my insertion)

Are you pure?

Torah teaches us that through our actions and our attitudes, our deeds and our words, we, so to speak, make the world (or at least our part of the world) habitable, as it were, for the Shekhinah/the Divine Presence.

Are you pure?

You started out that way, but now do you strive to make yourself and wherever you are God-worthy?

Are you pure?