6 Cheshvan 5781 / Saturday, October 24, 2020 | Torah Reading: Noach
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Return to Ritual Purity

Parshat Metora discusses a topic that is most challenging for us to relate to. What relevance do the laws of ritual purity and impurity for lepers hold for us?


Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Parshat Metzora
These Torah portions discuss at length topics that are among most challenging for us to relate to. What relevance do the laws of ritual purity and impurity — after childbirth, for lepers and for various types of male and female discharges — hold for us? Why does the Torah place such emphasis on these matters? And why do we feel so far removed from them?
The Tahara Axiom
In his book Orot, Rav Kook posited the following principle: The degree of purity required is a function of the comprehensiveness of the spiritual framework. The more inclusive a framework is, encompassing more aspects of life, the more rigorous are the requirements for tahara, ritual purity.
The Temple and its service are a classic example. The Temple projected an ethical and holy influence on a wide range of life's aspects — from the noble heights of the divine inspiration and prophecy, through the powers of imagination and the emotions (the outbursts of joy and awe in the Temple service), all the way down to the physical level of flesh and blood (the actual sacrifices). Because its impact reached even the lowest levels of physical existence (which are nonetheless integrally connected to all other aspects of life in an organic whole), the Temple and its srvice required an exact and precise purity.
By contrast, a spiritual and moral influence that is directed only towards the human intellect does not require such a refined degree of physical purity. Torah, the Sages taught, may be studied even when impure. "'Are not My words as fire? says the Lord' — Just as fire does not become impure, so too words of Torah cannot become impure" (Berachot 22a).
Changes in History
As the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylonia and rebuilt the Temple, it was necessary to revive the Temple's strict requirements of tahara. For this reason, Ezra enacted decrees stressing the need for greater ritual purity during this period.
The long exile that followed the Second Temple period, however, greatly weakened the emotive and imaginative abilities of the people. The intensity and aesthetic quality of spiritual life became impoverished, and the need for a rigorous degree of purity was accordingly lessened. Thus we find that one of the six orders of the Mishnah (compiled in the Land of Israel) is Taharot, dealing exclusively with matters of purity. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, was composed in the exile, and contains only one tractate on this order. Similarly, the Talmud repealed Ezra's decree obligating immersion before Torah study.
What remained for the Jewish people in exile? Only the intellectual influence of the Torah. It was still connected to the physical level, through the practical observance of mitzvot, but the intermediate stages of imagination and feeling were bypassed. In exile, we lament, "Nothing remains but this Torah" (from the Selichot prayers).
In the long centuries of exile, meticulousness in matters of ritual purity lost its obligatory nature. It became associated with idealistic longings, the province of the pious few.
A Return to Tahara
The Hasidic movement of the 1700's, however, aspired to restore the concepts of physical purity to the masses. Hasidism emphasizes the imaginative and emotional faculties — particularly with prayer and song — more than the intellectual. As a result, it awakened a greater need for personal and physical purity. This objective certainly contains a healthy kernel, though it needs additional direction and refinement.
Especially now, with the national renascence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, these aspects of tahara should be renewed and expanded. Our national renewal complements the renewed yearning for spirituality; and the healthy desire to heal the nation and its national soul applies to all aspects of life, including physical purity.
It is precisely in the camps of the Jewish army that the Torah demands a high level of purity:
"For the Lord your God is present in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy." (Deut. 23:15)
Together with the renewal of our national strength and vigor, there must be a corresponding reinforcement of emotive and physical purity. This will help prepare the basis for an integrated national life that encompasses the full rebirth of the people: from the highest intellectual pursuits, to the simple joy in life and living.
(adapted from Orot, p .81 (Orot HaTechiya, chap. 35))
* * *
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkooktorah.org/, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).

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