Weekly Torah Portion: Purity and Impurity, Life and Death
This week’s portion continues the discussion of ritual purity. In last week’s portion, the instructions regarding purity revolved around various animals that are considered pure or impure. Those animals which are impure may never be eaten nor used for sacrifice. In this week’s portion, however, the instructions revolve around situations where a person will become impure through a most natural circumstance, situations that involve illness, infection, skin problems, giving birth, and menstruation. In these cases, a person is not to avoid the situation that created the impurity, but must recognize the state and then take whatever steps are necessary to become pure once more. Until the individual is pure, he is prevented from approaching the Tabernacle or Temple and offering sacrifices to God.
The most serious type of impurity, however, is created as a result of coming into contact with a dead body. This impurity is actually discussed in other portions, but it is important to mention it in order to obtain a better understanding of the types of impurity mentioned in this week’s portion. In Numbers 19, God instructs the Children of Israel how to become pure after coming into contact with a dead body. Unlike the other types of impurity, only the ashes of a red heifer can bring the individual who has come into contact with a dead body to purity. Clearly, however, ordinary individuals are not supposed to refrain from contact with a dead body. The only restriction on coming into contact with a dead body is imposed on the priests, the sons of Aaron. In Leviticus 21, God specifically instructs Aaron and his children not to come into contact with any dead body, with the exception of their immediate relatives. And the high priest is prevented from coming into contact with the remains of his closest relatives as well. From this, we learn that the impurity associated with death is the greatest impurity of all. In Jewish tradition, it is referred to as the “granddaddy of all impurities.”
Many commentaries, therefore, have looked for similarities between the impurity resulting from death and the other impurities mentioned in the chapters we are reading this week. To what extent do the causes of impurity mentioned in this portion relate to death?
In both menstruation and childbirth, there is an element of death, as strange as that may sound. When a woman menstruates, it signifies that she is not pregnant, that the ovum that she carried in her body was not fertilized, did not become a fetus, which would then become a child, and therefore a “mini-death” has occurred. Of course, there is no fault attributed to the woman, and women, naturally, spend many years of their lives menstruating and not becoming pregnant. But it is a small reminder that women have that incredible potential to create life and when that potential is not realized, it bears a small relationship to death. Hence the status of impurity.
A similar process occurs in childbirth. Although childbirth is the exact opposite of death – a new life enters this universe, as opposed to a life departing- as the child leaves the woman’s body, there is a separation that the woman experiences from something that was life within her. And, although the life being born is cause for incredible happiness, there is a small element in this situation that includes a separation from life. Many women who have given birth, will attest to this duality of feeling – the “high” that is unparalleled by any other experience in life as a new life is born, coupled with the slight sense of “down” that the pregnancy is over. Some ascribe this to post- partum blues and hormonal changes, but perhaps there is a spiritual element present as well.
When seen from this perspective, the rules of purity and impurity contained in this portion enable us to deepen our understanding of the overwhelming power of life and the overarching value that the Bible ascribes to it. Life is from God. Life is pure. And while death is natural and expected, because it represents the negation of life, it creates a status of impurity which, temporarily, distances us from God. For God is Life.
— Excerpt taken from Shabbat Shalom by Sondra Oster Baras.
Sondra Oster Baras was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio in an Orthodox Jewish home. Upon completing her B.A. from Barnard, she obtained her J.D. at Columbia University’s School of Law. A longtime resident of Samaria, in 1998 she opened the Israel office of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.