Returning to Tahara
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Much of Exodus and Leviticus is concerned with detailed laws surrounding the abstract concepts of tumah and tahara. Loosely translated, tumah describes a state of spiritual blockage. Conversely, tahara is a state of spiritual receptivity. The many laws concerning tumah and tahara primarily applied to service in the Beis HaMikdash (temple).
We know that the books of the Torah are not meant as historical documents, but as daily spiritual guides. Today, the laws of tumah and tahara don’t seem to have much to do with our daily lives. What are we supposed to learn from them?
The truth is that when we talk about tahara, we’re really talking about immortality. They are two sides of the same coin. Tumah is equated with mortality – the natural as opposed to the supernatural, submission to the forces of nature that eventually end all human life.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders of recent times, defines tahara as “the freedom of the soul even as it is ensconced in an earthly body. Tahara affirms that even on Earth the soul is not bound by the forces of nature, and is completely free.”
Conversely, tumah reflects the stance that we are governed by natural forces alone. Call it determinism, Freudian psychopathology, astrology, or instinct: in Jewish thought, the moment a Jew relinquishes his infinite spirit in the name of any such concept, he has entered a state of tumah.
The ultimate expression of the helplessness that this sort of thinking espouses is contact with death, particularly the death of a loved one. As the pain of loss reaches sharp claws into the depths of the soul, thoughts shadowed by tumah almost can’t help but cross the mind. They whisper, “This is the end, and all that is left has been buried.” But encountering death in this way leads us to forget the truth: the human soul never dies.
One of the laws regarding tumah and tahara commanded in Parashas Chukas is to sprinkle the ashes of a red heifer on the person affected by tumah to remind him or her of the limitless, immortal essence within each one of us.
The wealth of symbolism in this mitzvah (Torah commandment) wakes us up to our true nature. For example, the color red represents vitality; life sparkling with the full strength of desire. The heifer must also be a calf “upon which a yoke has not come” (Numbers 19:2), symbolizing the yoke of behavior within ethical, moral bounds. Before being slaughtered, the young red heifer is the ultimate in what tumah stands for: nature, passionate and ruthless, thoughtless and, ultimately, cruel.
In slaughtering the heifer, the priest indicates that even unbridled vitality can become subservient to holiness. Holiness: the supernatural human capacity to act against his whims and lusts, to stand for the beauty of such intangible values as love and dignity and justice, values that live on even as the body weakens, decays in old age, and dies. The lusty, young, red calf’s ashes become the vessel to bring people out of a state of tumah and into a state of tahara, just as in limiting and directing our own natural tendencies, our physical bodies can facilitate tahara as well.
Those dampened by an encounter with a loved one’s death would stand respectfully before the priest who sprinkled ashes of the red heifer on them. The imagery of the heifer ran through their minds, speaking in symbols to remind them of humanity’s true essence and potential. Feeling a return to balance, their spiritual identity would be restored. Their renewed state of tahara made them fit to enter the Beis HaMikdash once again.
Although we no longer have a Beis HaMikdash to deepen our relationship with the Almighty, and we no longer have the ashes of the red heifer to bring us out of tumah and into tahara, these laws still teach us a great deal about how to live our lives today.