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Purity and Impurity--A Deeper Look

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Book­ of Leviticus deals with a number of circumstances that render a person ritually impure. In Parshat Tazria, the Torah states that a woman becomes ‘impure’ after a natural childbirth. Parshat Emor instructs us that a Kohen is forbidden to bring ritual impurity upon himself by coming into close contact with the dead. Both of these forms of ritual impurity are difficult to understand. Why should the Mitzvah of bringing a human being into the world result in ritual impurity? Death is a natural, inevitable part of human existence. Why should involvement with burying the dead, which is also a Mitzvah, result in ritual impurity?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great nineteenth century German Rabbi, has a fascinating solution to these questions. Interestingly, other great Rabbis (such as Rebbi Noson of Breslov) explain ritual impurity in a similar fashion. A defining feature of a human being created in the image of God is that he/she is a free-willed entity, empowered to choose right from wrong. When human beings proactively use their free will to control their physical destinies and rule over the natural world, the idea of a human being as a free-willed entity is highlighted and reinforced.

Conversely, when a human being feels that the natural world is too powerful to overcome, the person feels incapacitated and unempowered. This feeling diminishes the person’s belief in the power of choice in general. The notion of God creating a human being with free will and with the ability to choose right from wrong is also diminished. The person is left feeling that nature is in charge and not God, Heaven forbid. The person feels that, ultimately, his/her spiritual efforts are fruitless and his/her faith in God is lost, Heaven forbid.

Perhaps no two events have a more powerful effect on the human psyche in this way than death and childbirth. Death screams out for all to hear, the power of the cycles of nature, and the human being’s lack of power to prevent nature’s cycles. Plants rise and fall, animals rise and fall, and human being also rise and fall. Similarly, the powerful natural process of childbirth leaves a deep impression in the psyche of the childbearing woman that nature trumps all. Both death and childbirth have the deep spiritual and psychological effect of minimizing a person’s belief in being a proactive, powerful, and free-willed spiritual entity.

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the source of purity lies in the firm feeling of being a powerful, free-willed entity capable of choosing good and effecting change in the world. The source of impurity is exactly the opposite—a feeling of being helpless, incapacitated, and unimpactful in the world. When one is directly involved in giving birth to a child or exposed to death, the spiritual and psychological effect of impurity are inevitable. One has to, then, go through a process to restore the pure feeling of being a free-willed, proactive, and potentially powerful person in the world. May we carry this purity with us on our life journeys.