Of Body and SoulBy Rabbi Pinchas Winston
When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy, she shall be ritually
unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during the time of
separation (Vayikra 12:2)
With this week's parshah, we begin to address one of the most confusing,
yet central issues in Torah: spiritual purity and defilement. And, the very
fact that birth, called one of the biggest "celebrations" of life there is,
can result in such a thing as spiritual defilement, immediately reveals to
us that we are not dealing with something physical, like a "virus" for
example (though physical circumstances can cause defilement).
So what is it?
It is a "chok," a statute -- one of those laws whose reasoning is based
upon higher spiritual realities that most of us do not understand or even
relate to. However, it is quite revealing that the "av tumah" -- the
"father" of spiritual impurities -- is a dead body. It was for coming in
contact with such a level of impurity that one required the sprinkling of
the waters of the Parah Adumah (the "Red Heifer," of which we read in last
week's special Maftir).
It is this level of impurity that priests must avoid at just about all
costs, which is why cemeteries and hospitals for the most part are
off-limits to them. Hence, another anomaly of tumah: even if you're far
away from the dead body, just being in the same enclosed building with a
dead body instantaneously passes on spiritual defilement, as in the case of
However, since we lack the Temple today, into which one was never allowed
to enter in a state of spiritual impurity, and, the ashes of the Red Heifer
by which to become purified from such a stringent level of tumah, we don't
make notice of our spiritual state. However, it is precisely for these
reasons that the Jewish people have drifted so far from the truth of Torah,
and why spiritual insensitivity exists even among those who adhere to Torah
law. To exist continuously with such a level of spiritual impurity wears
down spiritual consciousness, creating barriers between our hearts and our
Father In Heaven.
There are different levels of spiritual impurity, and each has its
prescribed process of purification, as we see in this week's parshah.
Furthermore, coming into contact with a level of spiritual impurity doesn't
leave the person or object defiled on the same level as the source; usually
it results in a less strict level, and even then, up to a limit.
It is interesting to note that the "remedy" for the worst defilement,
contact with the dead, is the ashes of the Red Heifer, which, the Midrash
says, comes to rectify the sin of the golden calf. The golden calf, like
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which immortal man ate,
resulted in the loss of immortality, and therefore, death. Hence, the
golden calf, like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, must provide a
clue to unraveling the mystery of tumah, and indeed, it provides a very
important piece of the defilement puzzle.
The human being is composed of two parts: body and soul. Paradoxically,
they represent two extremes, and, miraculously, they seem to co-exist. One
side of the human, the body, is driven toward materialism and has little
interest in spiritual concepts, including, and sometimes especially, G-d.
The soul, on the other hand, ONLY cares about G-d and His will. Like parent
and child, they seem, much of the time, to occupy the same space, but with
The golden calf was a celebration of physicality, pure materialism. It was
a god of a religion called bodyism, which is why licentiousness followed in
its wake. It was as if the very fact that the golden calf could come into
existence that the laws of morality and responsibility could be abolished.
However, as the people learned upon Moshe's return, such "life" by Torah
standards is, in effect, really death, and that was what resulted in the
What makes death so problematic, from a Torah point of view, is that it
represents the ultimate abandonment of responsibility; dead people can't do
mitzvos anymore. But creation was brought about for people to do mitzvos in
This World, and thereby earn their portions in the World-to-Come. Death is
not merely a lack of life; it is the lack of opportunity to serve G-d,
something a soul can only do while in a body. Detachment from such
responsibility is not only "death" in the eyes of Torah, it is "impure,"
impure to the point that even coming in contact with such vehicles of
detachment can impart impurity to others.
Hence, even when a woman gives birth, at a time when the world celebrates
the life of a new child, there is impurity. As the Talmud points out, the
whole birthing process results in all kinds of situations that can inhibit
the woman's ability to serve G-d, at least momentarily. The loss of blood
itself, the very symbol of life and sacrifice for the Al-mighty, represents
a partial loss of life and strength to serve G-d.
That's physically. But, what about spiritually? What about when people
pursue the golden calf in their own way, forsaking spiritual
responsibility? We know from the Torah that this is definitely a level of
death, and if so, a strong form of spiritual defilement. Perhaps, not the
kind of defilement that requires the mixture of the Red Heifer ashes to
become purified, but, strong defilement just the same. And, certainly a
defilement in need of cleansing and purification -- either through
teshuvah, or, at the hand of G-d, for, as Rebi Akiva said:
Happy are you Israel! Before Whom do you purify yourselves? Who purifies
you? Your Father in Heaven, as it says, "I sprinkled upon them pure waters
and purified them," (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says, "Mikvah of Israel is G-d
Š" (Yirmiyahu 17:13) -- just as a mikvah purifies the defiled so, too, does
The Holy One, Blessed is He, purify Israel. (Yoma 85b, Mishnah)
G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: If a person has a [white] blotch,
discoloration, or spot on the skin of his body, and it is a mark of the
leprous curse on his skin, he shall be brought o Aharon, or to one of his
descendants who are the priests. The priest shall examine the mark
In Hebrew the terms are se'es, sapachas, and baheres. The first term,
"se'es" is said to come from the term "nasa," which means "raised," because
this mark had the appearance of being raised up from the skin surface. It
is said to have had been white in color, like clean wool.
The second type of mark, sapachas, was slightly duller in color, like the
color of the thin membrane of an egg. The word itself is said to be related
to the word mispachas, which is seen as a clean mark a few possukim ahead
(13:6). The last term, baheres, a spot, is either white in color (13:4) or
bright pink (13:19). According to the Talmud, it was white as snow, like
the kind of leprosy Miriam suffered with after speaking loshon hara about
Moshe Rabbeinu (Bamidbar 12:10).
In each case, the total area in question had to be at least 3/4" in
diameter before it had the ability to bring the "infected" person in
question before the priest to determine his spiritual status.
That's right, SPIRITUAL status, because tzora'as was not "leprosy," the
skin disease caused by a PHYSICAL germ. Tzora'as, as we know, was a skin
disease caused by a SPIRITUAL germ. This is one of the most classic
examples of how spiritual illness, if not tended to and treated, eventually
becomes manifested in the physical world -- of how exile first begins on a
spiritual plane before becoming manifested on the physical plane.
For example, when did Golus Bavel begin. Well, the Midrash tells us that it
was destined to last only seventy years. If Purim, the redemption from the
Babylonian Exile occurred in the year 3408/353 BCE, then, the beginning of
the exile must have been the year 3338/423 BCE. So, then, why does the
Midrash say that Golus Bavel began the year that the tribes Gad, Reuven,
and Menashe requested their portion of land to be on the east side of the
Jordan river -- 850 years in advance of the beginning of the seventy years?
What the Midrash means is that the SPIRITUAL beginning of Golus Bavel was
in the year 2488, when Gad, Reuven, and Menashe rejected Eretz Yisroel,
especially for financial reasons (they had large flocks, the Torah says,
and were concerned that not enough pasture land would be available in Eretz
Yisroel). It took 850 years for the spiritual "illness" of the Jewish
people to surface in physical form, when Nebuchadnetzar invaded Israel,
destroyed the Temple, and then exiled the people.
It works the same way for redemption as well. Spiritual redemption can
begin long before the physical redemption actually takes place. In Egypt,
the moment the first plague began -- the Plague of Blood -- the Jewish
people were already being redeemed, spiritually, at least. By Tishrei, six
months in advance of the actual physical redemption in Nissan, the slavery
had completely ceased, and all that remained was to watch the spiritual
redemption burst forth onto the physical stage.
That is why it is so very hard to judge contemporary events only within
their immediate context. We have to appreciate that what we see in the
physical realm is only a later manifestation of what had already occurred
in the spiritual realm. When it comes to healing physical wounds, or,
avoiding them altogether, "bandages" can help, but not necessarily solve
the problem, for the answer to all physical woes -- be they personal
injuries or historical events -- lies only in the spiritual domain.
When a person has the mark of tzora'as, his clothing must have a tear in
it, he must go without a haircut, and he must cover his head down to his
lips. He must call out, "Unclean! Unclean!" (Vayikra 13:45)
Well, it is true: You can run, but you can't hide. At least that was the
case during Temple times, when tzora'as came fast on the tails of loshon
hara. "Me? Speak loshon hara?" Fine -- play innocent as much as you'd like;
but, there's tzora'as growing on you telling the whole story! Just be
grateful that the Torah lets you walk through the streets like that
proclaiming your guilt, with your face covered Š
But why the tear in the clothing, like that of a mourner; why the unkempt
hair, like a mourner (Moed Katan 15a)? For whom does the Metzora mourn? To
begin with, he mourns for the "brother" whom he has "killed" through his
derogatory speech -- the truer it was, the worse the "death." As well, he
mourns for his sense of self, which he as "killed" somewhat by speaking
loshon hara, for only the yetzer hara derives pleasure from speaking or
listening to loshon hara. Well, at least that's what it told us on the
verge of committing this very heinous, but VERY difficult to avoid, sin.
And, he mourns for the world. Says the Talmud:
R' Elazar said: Every man was created to toil, as it says, "Because man was
made to toil ..." (Iyov 5:7). Now, I do not know if that means to toil
through speech, or in actual labor; however, once it says, "A toiling soul
toils for him, for his mouth compels him." (Mishlei 16:26), I know that a
person was created to toil with his mouth. I do not know, though, if this
means to toil in Torah or just in regular conversation. However, once it
says, "This Torah should not leave your mouth ..." (Yehoshua 1:8), I know
that man was created to toil in Torah [through speech]. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Can there be any great anti-thesis of Torah-speech, any greater reversal of
the purpose of creation than loshon hara? Certainly there is very little
that can undo the purpose of the Jewish people faster than loshon hara:
Rebi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: If only Dovid had not accepted loshon
hara, the kingdom of the House of Dovid would never have divided, Israel
would not have worshipped idols, and we would never have been exiled from
our land. (Shabbos 56b)
This little statement of the Talmud is one of those that causes all kinds
of "bells-and-whistles" to go off. Tell me that Dovid HaMelech suffered
personally for accepting loshon hara, that he was forced from his throne
temporarily, or even permanently for believing derogatory statements about
someone else, I would still be forced to raise my eyebrow in question.
However -- the entire kingdom divided Š a nation turned to idol worship Š
and exile after exile after bitter exile -- all because ONE man, albeit the
king of Israel, accepted loshon hara?
Hence, one can only conclude, like with many such Talmudic imbalances, that
we are being told a principle here. Like tzora'as itself, with respect to
speaking loshon hara, what you see on the surface is symptomatic of a much
greater spiritual illness on the inside of the person. And, in the case of
a Jewish king, of the body of the Jewish people.
In other words, that the situation ever occurred within the Jewish nation
that could, potentially, result in loshon hara; that Dovid HaMelech could
find himself in position to be tested in terms of listening to loshon hara;
that Dovid could accept the loshon hara itself, in the end, is all
indicative of a Divine Providence that began, perhaps, years before.
In other words, the Talmud is commenting, Dovid's acceptance of loshon hara
was a sign that something was not right in the state of the Jewish people,
something so severe that it would eventually tear the Kingdom of Dovid
asunder, soon turn the hearts of his subjects away from G-d toward idols
instead, and, by extension, result in exile of the Jewish nation.
Now, before you speak loshon hara next, or listen to it, or consider
accepting it, remember Dovid HaMelech. Remember the kingdom he once
cherished, and the people he loved and led. Remember that our long, bitter
exile is the result of the loshon hara he only ACCEPTED, but didn't speak.
Remember the "mourner" who walks through the streets shouting, "Unclean!
Remember that, in reality -- even today -- not only can you not hide, but
you can't run either. For the damage caused by loshon hara is swift,
certain, and NEVER worth the pleasure the yetzer hara promises.
For the Conductor, on the Gittis, by Asaf. Sing joyously to the G-d of our
might, call out to the G-d of Ya'akov. Raise up a song and sound the drum,
the sweet harp with the lyre. (Tehillim 81:1-3)
Thus begins the Shir Shel Yom for Thursday, because, says the Talmud, that
was the day when G-d created the birds and the fish, and when man sees
them, he is inspired to give praise to their Creator (Rosh Hashanah 31a).
However, the next verse provides with an additional reason:
... Blow the shofar at the moon's renewal, at the time (b'keseh) appointed
for our festive day. (4)
This refers to Rosh Chodesh when the moon is renewed, but more
specifically, to Rosh Hashanah ("b'keseh" refers to Rosh Hashanah since the
word can mean "hide," and the new moon is all but hidden on that day), the
first day of Tishrei, which was Day Six during the week of creation. It was
the birth date of mankind, and therefore, his judgment day ...
... Because it is a decree for Israel, a judgment for the G-d of Ya'akov. (5)
"It is a Heavenly decree that Israel blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the
day when G-d sits and judges." (Rashi)
... He appointed it as a testimony for Yehosef, when He went out over the
land of Egypt, when [says Yosef] "I heard a language unknown to me." (6)
In order for Yosef to become viceroy of Egypt, he had to speak Egyptian.
Only one problem though, Yosef did not know a word Egyptian (okay, maybe
one word he knew), and had only ONE night to learn it before appearing
before Paroah the next day. It was a good thing Gavriel was dispatched from
Heaven to Yosef's prison cell to teach him the language that very night ...
... I am Hashem, your G-d, who raised you from the land of Egypt; open wide
your mouth and I will fill it. (11)
Are we speaking of food here? Is G-d telling us to open our mouths wide so
he can keep shoving food into it? Is that the reason why Hashem took us out
of Egypt, to saturate us with food? No, obviously. What G-d wants to put
into our mouths is spoken about directly in this verse:
G-d said, "My spirit that is upon you and My words that I have placed in
your mouth." (Yeshayahu 59:20)
We're back to the centrality of speech once again, GODLY speech, the result
of the holiness that G-d invested in man with the gift of a soul on Day Six
of creation, and the Jewish people with the gift of redemption from Egypt
(Pesach: peh sach -- the "mouth that spoke") and Paroah (paroah: peh ra'ah
-- the "evil mouth") -- embodied in the concept of Bris Milah, the
"Covenant of the Word."
... Those who hate G-d would lie to Him, and their [Israel's] time would go
on forever ... (81:16)
If only we'd be honest with ourselves: G-d is G-d, Torah is Divine, and we
only think otherwise when blinded by the passion of physical desire. Such
falsehood brings temporary gratification in the short-run, but does not do
very much for eternal life in the World-to-Come.
... And He would feed him [Israel] with the cream of the wheat, and from a
rock I would satisfy you with honey. (17)
According to the Radak, the "rock" being referred to here is the Nations of
the World, who can be as harsh as a rock to Israel. It has to be one of the
great ironies of history: Israel turns its back on G-d to impress the
nations in search of peaceful co-existence, only to suffer horribly at the
hands as a result. Yet, turning to G-d results in the nations pursuing
peace with Israel -- Torah-style.
Creatures of habit, aren't we? Oy.
Have a great Shabbos,