Purity and Impurity: A State of Mind
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Two Shabbatot before the month of Nissan we take out an extra Torah Scroll and read about the law of the red heifer. In Jewish law, one who has come into contact with a dead body (or been exposed in various ways) is rendered ritually impure (Tamei) and is forbidden to partake of the Pascal lamb and other offerings. The person needs to undergo a process of purification which enables them to eat temple offerings such as the Pascal lamb. The ashes of the red heifer were used in this purification process.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a fascinating explanation as to why being exposed to a dead body causes this Tumah (ritual impurity). He explains that the basis of spiritual purity is the belief that a person has free will, the feeling that our spirits are empowered to be masters over our physical drives, the idea that we are free to choose and therefore change, grow and develop through being proactive. Death, on the other hand, delivers the message that the cyclical nature of the physical world is unstoppable. Death leaves one’s psyche with a feeling of powerlessness and deeply undermines our internal belief that we can be proactive and change ourselves and the world around us. Rabbi Hirsch explains that this is one of the reasons for the spiritual impurity associated with being exposed to the dead.
Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation is particularly appropos to the holiday of freedom, Passover. Just as physical enslavement contaminates one’s free will, so too feeling powerless and like a victim of one’s circumstances, is a contamination of the free-willed nature of human beings. Let us strive to create a positive, empowering and protective state of mind, the pure mind space from which we can truly serve God by making our world a better place for all.