Parashat Metzora: A sacred complex

Death is an inescapable fact. But how we deal with this fact is subjective.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The parasha we read this week, Metzora, deals with a list of halachot pertaining to ritual purity and impurity, as did last week’s parasha. Certain situations in life are considered “impure” and this parasha guides a person on how to purify himself.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not forbidden for a person to become ritually impure (other than for a kohen), but if he wants to enter the Temple or eat sacred foods, meaning sacrifices, he must first purify himself.

One of the greatest Jewish thinkers and poets of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Spain, 1075–Israel, 1141) developed an interesting outlook regarding the concept of impurity, which he explained in his philosophical work The Kuzari. According to him, all the situations that cause a person to become impure are connected to death. 

Impurity is the reaction to a person’s encounter with death, and the process of purification is a process of distancing oneself from death and returning to life. Indeed, the most severe impurity is that caused by a human corpse. A human corpse is recognized in Halacha as the ultimate in impurity, and a person who touches a corpse or is in the same house as a corpse is made severely impure and must go through a complicated process to be purified.

Death is an inescapable fact. But how we deal with this fact is subjective. One common way of dealing with death is by negating the significance of life. If we are all ultimately going to die anyway, if everything we do and create is temporary, we cannot escape the thought that life is not eternal.

 Empty beds in the intensive care unit at the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Empty beds in the intensive care unit at the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

This is a human response we are all familiar with, and it gets stronger when we experience a real encounter with a human corpse.

How does the Torah deal with this? Does it forbid contact with a corpse? On the contrary. One of the most important commandments is accompanying the dead person and his burial, a commandment that cannot be fulfilled without close contact with the deceased’s body.

But there is a sacred complex in which this thought cannot exist. This is the Temple. There, death has no place, and therefore a person who became impure and wants to enter the Temple must first go through a complicated process of purification.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the great commentators on the Torah (Germany, 1808-1888), explained this severe attitude toward the encounter between death and the Temple. Religious experience, he said, tends to focus on our lack of power. Faith in God’s unlimited power can bring humans to a state of passivity, as we accept reality and feel tied to it. For this reason, clergy are part of the cemetery scenery. Death might be considered as interwoven with religious experience.

But Judaism is a religion that focuses on life. The Torah is a “Torah of life.” The commandments all guide people to act in a way that does not accept reality but, rather, tries to change it. This is defiance of death. Man is obligated to act, create, change and build, without considering the fact that life is terminal.

Therefore, it is necessary to keep a distance between death and the Temple. The Temple is the center of Jewish life, and death and its influences should not enter it. Had there been a big sign greeting people to the Temple, it would not have said “Welcome,” but, rather, “Here is life.”

This is a brave outlook that is not easily achieved. Man is expected to suspend his finiteness and look beyond the horizon, beyond the limited human scope. God asks man to integrate himself into the master plan which is so much greater than the number of years given to man. This ability could be harmed if the concepts of death, nonexistence, and passivity were to enter the Temple.

The Temple has not stood for about two thousand years, but Judaism continues to exist and continues to defy death. This amazing phenomenon was expressed only a few decades ago when, after the Jewish nation suffered the horrific Holocaust, it dusted itself off, returned to the land of its forefathers, and built it with hard work and a sense of mission. Those who had suffered so many blows now faced the future, faced hope and the following generations. This was an amazing expression of the Jewish spirit which lived on.

Purity and impurity – although they may sound like outdated and irrelevant concepts – have the ability to instill a new spirit in every person, one that inspires faith and confidence. This is the spirit that tells every person: you must live! ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.