Friday, June 27, 2014

Chukkat- The Yin Yang of Purity


Vkhibes b’gadav hakohein v’rachatz b’saro bamayim v’achar yavo el-hamachaneh v’tamei hakohein ad-ha’arev.
And the priest will wash his clothes, and he will bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, and the priest will be tamei until the evening. (B’midbar 19:7)
Parashat Chukkat opens with the ritual of the red heifer sacrifice. This sacrifice is the only ritual that can remove from individuals, from the people Israel the tamei of death.
Tamei is a fascinating concept. It is most often translated as impure. Unfortunately, the word impure brings with it the negative connotations of evil or dirty. In English, impure is the opposite of pure; one negative, the other positive. However, tamei and tahor do not have an opposing relationship, but rather an ezer k’negdo (Breishit 2:18) relationship, one that is, at the same time, contrary and complementary.
The red heifer ritual is a wonderful example of this. While the ritual changes those among the Israelites from tamei, impure, to tahor, pure, the same ritual renders the tahor priest tamei. What is it then that renders us tamei? It is the interaction with the holy that renders us tamei. Touching life, touching life potential or the absence of it renders us tamei. Death, blood, bodily fluids, these are carrier of kedusha, and therefore of the yin-yang of tamei-tahor.
Beyond the tangible, there also exists that yin-yang relationship in the mitzvot. The red heifer ritual purifies us from the highest level of impurity- contact with the dead. But this mitzvah, to care for the dead is one of the most sacred mitzvot. So our desire to attain the highest levels of kedusha brings us in contact with the holiest moments, and, like the priest who performs the red heifer ritual, we become tamei; we become impure. Our impurity is in itself a special level of sanctity.
In our modern world, we spend much time running from death. We do not see the kedusha, the holiness in it. This is apparent in shortened shivas, extreme shiva hours and fear of the shiva minyan. As a community we no longer have the knowledge of how to deal with death. We seek to make small talk at a shiva, afraid of the silence. As mourners, we forget that we are there to be cared for, not to care for others. As our ancestors did with the red heifer ritual, we need to embrace our modern rituals surrounding death. It is our time to be tamei. We have encountered holiness and its absence. We must learn, or perhaps relearn, to embrace encounter, to allow it to pass through us so we can become rebalanced with the sense of tahor and move back into society.