The Significance of Purity and Impurity in The Relationship Between Humankind and God
Rivky Yisraeli is the Educational Director of the Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman
The Book of Vayikra – or Torat Kohanim as it is also known – deals primarily with the Mishkan/Mikdash; the sacred service performed therein and the eating of the holy sacrifices. All of these can only be performed when one is in a state of purity.
The weekly portions we have recently read deal with the laws pertaining to men and women who are in a state of impurity (with the exception of those who are impure because they have come into contact with a dead person; these laws are mentioned in another portion). Let us attempt to understand the concepts of tum’ah and tahara [ritual purity and impurity] and how these are relevant to our own times.
The list of “those who are impure” begins in the portion of Tazri’a and continues until the end of parshat Metzora. The list comprises six states of human impurity in the following order:
The impurity of a birthing woman: “If a woman be delivered, and bear a male child, then she shall be impure seven days… But if she should bear a female child, then she shall be impure two weeks…”. (Vayikra 12: 2, 5)
The impurity of one afflicted with leprosy – a metzora: “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and in the skin of his flesh it turns into the plague of leprosy…. and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him impure…” (ibid. 13: 2, 3)
The impurity of a man who has a urethral discharge (zav): “When any man has a discharge out of his flesh, his discharge is impure…” (ibid. 15, 2)
The impurity of a man who has discharged semen: “And if the flow of seed should go out from a man… he will be impure until the evening…” (ibid. 15, 16)
The impurity of a menstruating woman: “And if a woman has a discharge, and her discharge in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever touches her shall be impure until the evening…” (ibid. 15, 19)
The impurity of a woman who bleeds beyond her menstrual cycle (zava): “And if a woman should have a blood discharge of many days not in the time of her menstrual cycle, or if she should have a discharge beyond the time of her menstrual impurity; all the days of the discharge of her impurity she shall be as in the days of her impurity: she is impure.” (ibid. 15, 25)
A closer examination of this list brings to light a few interesting characteristics:
- Some forms of impurity, like that of the birthing woman, a man who has discharged semen or a woman’s menstrual blood, are natural phenomena, reflecting good health. (It must be noted that a woman is termed a nida, a woman who becomes impure due to the discharge of menstrual blood, so long as her bleeding is regular and doesn’t continue beyond the normal number of bleeding days. In other words – as long as her body functions normally and her cycle is orderly. However, the minute the balance is broken and the bleeding goes on for longer than it should, this is looked upon as a disorder and the woman is then defined as a )
Other types of impurities are manifestations of illnesses: the impurity of the leper; the impurity of one who has abnormal urethral discharge and a woman with irregular or very long uterine bleeding.
It follows then that impurity does not necessarily denote a disorder. Often, impurity is simply a reflection of good health; occasionally, it is a sign of illness. (In fact, in the instance of an impurity resulting from the body’s natural course, one can immerse oneself as soon as the “symptoms” are over, and thus become pure again. However, when the symptoms causing the impurity are the result of a disorder or illness, one has to wait an interim period until one is able to immerse and be purified.)
- Impurity, at large, is not gender-specific. That said, there are types of impurity that are characteristic of males only (for example, semen or urethral discharge); while other forms of impurity are typically female (birth, menstruation, abnormal uterine bleeding over a long period of time.). Some states of impurity are not gender-specific and can manifest themselves in both men and women (for example, leprosy). No matter what kind of impurity we are dealing with, impurity may be transmitted from a woman to a man and vice versa through physical touch or intercourse.
- With the exception of kohanim – who are prohibited from becoming impure and, as such, are not allowed to be in contact with the dead – there is actually no prohibition to be impure. (In fact, it would be impossible to obligate one to maintain a state of purity since, in most cases, impurity is the result of circumstance, and not normally a state people choose to be in).
Nevertheless, there are certain limitations that are imposed on one who is impure: s/he may not enter the Mikdash, nor may s/he eat of the flesh of the sacrifices.
- Any person, irrespective of status or personality, can be in a state of purity or impurity. No person can remain pure for eternity; on the other hand, one always has the possibility to emerge from a state of impurity and become pure.
If so, what is the significance of these two states?
An impure person is one who is physically distant from God due to the fact that he is unable to fulfill such commandments that signify physical closeness to God (entering the Mikdash, bringing sacrifices, eating from the sacred flesh of the offerings). Is this bad in itself? Not necessarily. Our portion teaches us about the natural states that are part and parcel of human life, and the dynamics of our relationship with our Maker – movements comprised of closeness and distance, a concept called ‘ratzo vashov’ [“going and returning”] – describing the eternal human state of coming closer to God and then feeling distant from Him, intermittently. When one feels far away from his Maker, he longs for the moment when he can finally become pure again and reunite with God. However, when one is in a state of purity, one also knows that it is for a limited time only, and that impurity cannot be evaded forever. Closeness to God, if so, is built on dynamics of closeness and distance, and the constant longing for renewed closeness.
It follows then that purity and impurity are a natural part of man’s relationship with God; a dynamic relationship based on constant back-and-forth movements which make the bond as significant and as deep as it is. One must know that when it comes to our special relationship with God (and all our relationships for that matter – be they our spouses, our friends etc.), there is also a great significance to distance and separation. There is no need to fear this temporary alienation, but to simply be aware of the fact that distance plays a part in the relationship, and can be used to better understand the connection and ultimately enhance the bond.
We truly hope that we will soon merit to engage in the true and pure worship of God – “Purify our hearts that we may truly worship You”, as we say in our prayers, “vetaher libeinu le’ovdecha be’emet“. May it come to be soon!