Tazria-Metzora: Is it Bad to be Impure?

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Is it Bad to be Impure? 

Purity (tahara) and impurity (tum’ah) are manifestations of a routine relationship between man and his Creator. As it turns out, the distance that creates impurity has a role that we ought to exploit.

Rabbanit Rivky Yisraeli is the Educational Director of the Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman

The Book of Leviticus, or Torat Hacohanim, as it is also called, deals mainly with issues tied to the Beit HaMikdash and the Temple service. One is required to be in a state of taraha, purity, to enter the Temple, perform the Temple rites, and partake of the offerings.

In the parshiot we have read in the past few weeks, we can find a list of impurities applying to both men and women (except for those who become impure through contact with a dead body, a subject covered in a different parasha). Let’s try to thoroughly understand what tahara and tum’ah truly mean, and how they tie into our current reality.

Six types of impurity appear in the list of impure individuals that begins in Parashat Tazria, and continues until the end of Parashat Metzora:

The Impurity of a New Mother (Leviticus 12:2-5): “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days… If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks…”

The Impurity of a Leper (ibid., 13:2-3): “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body… when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean.”

The Impurity of a Man who had an abnormal Seminal Discharge (ibid. 15:1): “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member, he is unclean.”

The Impurity of a Man who had a normal Seminal Discharge (ibid., 15:16): “When a man has an emission of semen, he shall… remain unclean until evening.”

Menstrual Tum’ah (nidah) (ibid, 15:19): “When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening.”

 The Impurity of a Zavah (a woman with an abnormal vaginal discharge (ibid. 15:25): “When a woman has had a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or when she has a discharge beyond her period of impurity, she shall be unclean, as though at the time of her impurity, as long as her discharge lasts.”

When we review this list, we discover some intriguing things:

  1. There are impurities like the impurity of a new mother, the impurity of Ba’al Keri and menstrual impurity, which are all completely normal phenomena experienced by healthy individuals. Other types of impurities are expressions of sicknesses, such as the impurity of a leper, the impurity of a zav, and the impurity of a zavah. In other words, impurity isn’t necessarily negative.
  2. Impurity isn’t gender specific. Sometimes, only men experience it (as in the case of a ba’al keri and a zav) and at other times, only women do (as in the case of a new mother, menstrual impurity, and zavah). Some impurities can be experienced by both genders, as in the case of a leper. In any case, though, impurity can be transferred from a woman to a man, or from a man to a woman, through physical contact and/or sexual intimacy.
  3. Becoming impure is not a transgression. In fact, no one can be commanded to refrain from becoming impure, since in most cases, if not all of the cases, people don’t become impure out of choice. Still, certain restrictions are imposed on people who have become impure: they are prohibited from entering the Temple or eating the meat of a Temple sacrifice.
  4. All individuals, regardless of their personality or standing, are subject to becoming impure. At times, they will be pure, and at others, they will be impure. On the one hand, no individual can always be pure, while on the other hand, all individuals can potentially transition from a state of impurity to a state of purity.

What is the significance of purity and impurity?

An impure individual is kept at a certain distance from the Hashem because he or she can’t observe anything that expresses a physical proximity to Him (such as entering the Beit HaMikdash, making a sacrificial offering, or partaking in the eating of sacrificial meat). Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. This parasha intends to teach us about a person’s natural state in the world, and the relationship between a person and his or her Creator. During the course of his or her life, this relationship oscillates between proximity and remoteness, a sort of “spiritual coming and going”. Sometimes, a person stays close, at other times, the person stays away. When the person is at a distance, he or she eagerly awaits the opportunity to become pure and become closer to Hashem, once more. When the person is pure and closer to Hashem, he or she knows that this state won’t last forever. It’s temporary – until the person becomes impure again. The value of proximity is founded on the dynamic relationship between proximity and remoteness, and the yearning for a renewed closeness.

As such, purity (tahara) and impurity (tum’ah) are manifestations of a routine relationship between man and his Creator. It is a relationship that expresses the dynamism and flux that create a deeper meaning and allow us to connect to that deeper meaning. People need to know that distance and alienation have a bearing on their relationship with the Creator of the Universe (and apparently, any relationship, be it a relationship between spouses or between any two individuals). There is no need to dread this distance or get worked up about it. We need to keep in mind that distance has a role to play, and that we can take advantage of this distance to engage in deep study and achieve a profound understanding of the meaning of that relationship. 

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