Shabbat Tazria: Purity
Having dealt with the sacrificial system and its ceremonials, the Torah now turns to human beings and how they should take steps to care for their physical as well as spiritual lives. As with sacrifices, much of what the Torah is saying simply doesn’t resonate with us today or is misunderstood, unless we look beneath the surface to see the deeper significance.
Tahara, purity, is usually understood to do with cleanliness. But it really describes moving from one physical state to another. It is a way of getting people to be aware of different states and spaces. It is part of a holistic approach, that stands for life and rebirth.
We all go through different stages and phases of life. From birth to death, from health to sickness. We suffer from warfare, accidents, diseases, carelessness, and changes in our bodies as well as our minds. Yet even the bad things can sometimes strengthen us. We bleed when our bodies change or are affected. Yet sickness or injury can make us stronger. Bacteria can be productive; antibodies can protect us against future attacks. Being sick can make us appreciate our health more. Being separated makes coming together so much sweeter. Purity and impurity simply refer to these states and they offer optimism and hope for change.
Marking the transition from that abnormal state to a normal one required cognition and then immersing in water to symbolize change — like Noah’s flood that covered the earth and then enabled humanity to start again and become better. The Torah opens the subject this week with the most wonderful process of conception and childbirth. It transitions from pleasure to pain, and then to delight. The Torah regards sexuality and childbirth as wonderful, beautiful phenomena in human life: to be respected and appreciated and not feared, even if it can often be dangerous.
To begin with, a woman enters a different physical state during her period. Most men have no idea what she goes through. She needs time to recuperate. She waits till she has recovered and goes to the mikvah and transitions back to her regular state. Similarly, with childbirth the process is painful, the body suffers trauma, and yet the result is something beautiful. This too is marked by going to the mikvah and returning to equilibrium.
But then the Torah goes on to talk about other kinds of physical dislocation affecting men as well as women, where the body is not functioning the way that it usually does or should. The Torah uses the word tsara’at, usually translated as leprosy. Leprosy in the Bible affects clothes and buildings not just human beings, whereas leprosy that we know clinically is a phenomenon of human beings only. So that it is a kind of metaphor for any sickness when one is removed from normal society into quarantine or doesn’t feel the way one normally does. When one emerges from this state this also has to be recognized and appreciated.
Originally this transition was under priestly supervision which emphasized the spiritual aspect and the importance of faith healing. But now we use rituals to mark these different states. It is also why the process of death is such an important part of this change of state, and it too involves immersion and purification. And it illustrates why spaces that are so important in Jewish life to recognize differences between the sexes as well as our spiritual states.
For Hasidic men, the mikvah starts each day, a re-birth, a new start. It too recognizes different states, good ones, bad ones, happy ones, sad ones. The human condition is constantly changing and why each new day can be a new start. This is why these laws which seem so archaic to us when we look at them in the cold light of rationalism, are so important, precisely because they underline the holistic unity of the physical with the spiritual. Which we need to be reminded of in every aspect of our daily lives.
The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.