Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Proper Care & Feeding of Souls

On these pages we have never been content with merely presenting a relevant message from the parsha. That would be easy – the divine timelessness of Torah is readily apparent to any serious student. Rather, we have set out to demonstrate that week after week, the parsha’s central theme sounds as if G-d composed it yesterday. This presents a bit of a challenge. The theme is invariably relevant, but identifying the theme is not always a simple matter.

Take, for example, this week’s two parshiot. The bulk of Tazria and Metzora deal with the laws of Tzara’at, a discoloration of skin, hair, clothes or even walls caused by certain sins. Tzara’at is a paranormal phenomenon occurring only in people of extraordinarily righteousness and spiritual sensitivity. Only a Jewish body or home exceedingly intolerant of sin will react with an outbreak of Tzara’at. (There has not been a known case for many centuries.)

Once diagnosed with Tzara’at, the afflicted is declared “tamei,” a mysterious state of being usually translated as ‘spiritually impure’ or ‘ritually unclean.’ A purification process, including a period of introspection outside the community and Temple offerings, will cure the Tzara’at and the impurity that it signifies. If Tzara’at was our only topic, a relevant theme would be near at hand. But no such luck; Tazriah begins with an altogether different issue. Childbirth.
When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy, she shall be spiritually impure for seven days, just as she is impure during the time of separation when she has her period…
Vayikra 12:2
Now we’ve hit a wall. What is the unifying theme of the parsha? Not only do we have the difficult task of finding a common denominator between childbirth, the menstrual period and Tzara’at, we must also explain why this commonality would result in spiritual impurity. And then we’ll need to figure out how any of this could possibly be relevant today. No one ever said parsha study would be easy.

The road to an answer must begin with a better understanding of “Tumah.” While the Torah enumerates several different sources of spiritual impurity, the granddaddy of them all is a Jewish corpse. Nothing is more tamei and nothing transmits tumah more powerfully than a Jewish corpse. We might as well use the dead man as our guide.

Why is a dead man tamei? Why would a perfectly innocent Jew become ‘spiritually impure’ at the moment of death? Because nature abhors a vacuum.

When alive, the body is home to a holy Jewish soul. But when a person dies, the soul departs and leaves behind an empty vessel, a corpse. A body that once held a soul cannot bear to be nothing more than a used bag, so negative spiritual energy, a spirit of impurity, fills it. The same is true for a woman who gets her period or has a child. In either case a vacuum is created. A womb which previously held potential for life, or life itself, has become empty. Touched by the miracle of reproduction, the womb will not tolerate barrenness. The spiritual vacuum must be filled, so it fills with tumah.

This explains the tumah of childbirth, but what about Tzara’at? Why is Tzara’at a cause for tumah? What is Tzara’at anyway? The medieval kabbalist Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270) provides the answer:
“And when a garment is afflicted with Tzara’at…” (Vayikra 13:47). Such a thing is entirely unnatural and would never occur, nor would walls of a home ever turn colors. However, [the explanation is this:] When the Jewish people are whole [heartedly devoted] to G-d, the Shechina is constantly upon them, maintaining their bodies, clothes and homes with a good appearance. But when one of them happens to sin, an ugly mark appears on his flesh, clothes or home, signifying that G-d’s presence has departed from this individual.
It turns out that Tzara’at is an expansion of the idea introduced at the beginning of Tazria. Just as tumah is generated by a womb that has been abandoned by its holy fruit, tumah is also generated by a human being that has been abandoned by G-d. Spiritual emptiness is an unstable state, so whether the vacuum is a corpse, a womb or a man who has sinned, tumah steps right in. This is the theme of our parsha. (I am indebted to my good friend and chavrusah, Mr. Earl Hartman of Palo Alto, for this important insight.)

Just as there are laws of physics, there are laws of metaphysics. It is a law of nature that a spiritual vacuum cannot exist in our universe. If a vacuum isn’t quickly filled with something positive, then it will fill itself with something negative. The fact that the corpses and wombs are innocent of any wrongdoing is irrelevant. They become tamei by default.

This reality is very much within human experience. As Rabbi Ahron Kotler observed, the pursuit of materialism is driven by a soul starving for spirituality. Empty of mitzvot and sanctity, the soul strives to satiate its hunger in any way it can. Attend to the proper care and feeding of your soul, for if its spiritual needs are ignored, the soul itself will push man into tumah.

But here’s the rub. When a vessel experiences paradise, its hunger intensifies. A womb that never produced an egg is happy and pure; in its adolescent ignorance it is content with the status quo. But once the womb is touched by the promise of birth, it will never be the same. With the realization of its extraordinary potential comes a loneliness and a desperation that leads to tumah. (Some women seem to experience this tumah as post-partum depression, a curse placed on Eve back in Bereishit 3:16.) Similarly, it is only the people who have developed an intimate relationship with G-d that become tamei when their sins drive G-d’s presence away. A Jew who never shed a tear in prayer, never sang zemirot at a Shabbat table or was never moved to dance by the beauty of Torah and mitzvot does not suffer the agony of emptiness. Such a soul is a spiritual adolescent; unaware of the sublime pleasures, it sleeps in a cocoon of ignorance.

The more you feed your soul, the hungrier it gets. The more mitzvot you do and the higher you go, the more Torah and mitzvot your soul will need to stay healthy and content. This design forces man to either grow or fall. Unless you’ve hit rock bottom, there is no standing still.


  1. This makes sense. Thank you for explaining the spiritual basis for impurity. So I wonder if one asked HaShem specifically to fill the womb with the Presence rather than some ugly spirit if that wouldn't bypass this business altogether. Sort of the opposite of spiritual emptiness -- why not fill the vacuum with good stuff?

  2. Anonymous-

    Asking won't hurt, but don't expect HaShem to break the laws of (spiritual) nature.
    Filling the vacuum with good stuff is the solution. This is exactly the point I was trying to make.