Parshat Metzora: Leviticus 14:1-15:33; Malachi 3:4-24. (Shabbat HaGadol)
By Rabbi Dan Horwitz
The Torah goes into significant depth when exploring the categories of ritually pure (tahor) and ritually impure (tamei), particularly regarding the priests and the state one must be in when offering sacrifices.
In this week’s portion, we find the ritual cleansing process for those who have come into contact with various skin (and other) afflictions, for those who have nocturnal emissions, for those who menstruate, etc. Whether on their own bodies, from the walls of their homes or transmitted by others; whether by direct contact or by sitting on surfaces those deemed to be ritually impure have sat, being ritually pure for priests was a priority.
In today’s world, it’s hard to understand the implications of ritual purity, and many examples of what makes one ritually impure seem downright odd or counterintuitive. For example, it’s a mitzvah (sacred connection opportunity) to help bury the dead, even though doing so makes one ritually impure. We learn that one becomes ritually impure after intercourse with one’s spouse (also a mitzvah). Thus, we learn that ritual impurity is not an inherently negative thing. In fact, given the realities of our world, the Shulchan Aruch, the famous 16th-century code of Jewish law that outlines much of contemporary traditional practice, suggests that we all are presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity (Yoeh De’ah 322:4).
One of the spiritual technologies that Judaism gets right is that of mourning. We have beautiful, intense mourning rituals, with different time segments (traditionally seven days, 30 days, 11 months, multiple Yizkor services each year and annually a yahrtzeit date).
When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the need existed to mourn — to mourn the loss of autonomy and to mourn the Judaism that was, as the Temple/sacrificial period of Judaism gave way to the prayer construct of Judaism. Having that regular recollection of the Judaism that was remains comforting for many and can still impart lessons and values relevant to today.
At the same time, it also creates the space and permission for us to stop doing certain things that aren’t working and to mourn for them while finding ways to study and learn about them post-practice as we adopt new practices.
For example, on Yom Kippur, we no longer slaughter one goat while putting the sins of the nation on a second that is sent out into the wilderness for the demon Azazel. However, there is a special service on Yom Kippur afternoon where we read about the practice. Just because we are not practicing ritual purity and impurity the way it was practiced in biblical times doesn’t mean it isn’t worth studying and learning about, especially if we frame continuing to learn about it as a mechanism for allowing those upset at its falling out of practice to mourn, which then creates opportunities for new practices to develop to better meet contemporary needs.
There are many things we as a Jewish community are currently doing ritually that are not working; are we ready to acknowledge which those are, mourn for them and create annual memorial rituals that involve studying them, so we can move into a new era of Jewish life and practice?
Rabbi Dan Horwitz is the founding director of The Well. For information, visit meetyouatthewell.org.