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Posted on June 7, 2002 (5759) By Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann | Series: | Level:

All food that is eaten, upon which water comes, can become contaminated. (11:34)

In parshas Shemini, the Torah discusses some of the laws of ritual contamination (tum’ah). Food that comes in contact with a (ritually) contaminated object (such as a corpse) is rendered impure, and is no longer eligible for use in the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple).

Every law in the Torah can be understood on numerous levels. Peshat is the most simple level. Remez, derush, and sod are deeper levels of understanding. Every mitzvah carries hidden messages that can be applied to everyday life. What is the hidden message of the laws of ritual impurity?

The above-quoted verse touches on two conditions which must be fulfilled before food can become susceptible to contamination:

  1. The food must be fit for human consumption. Animal fodder can not be rendered ritually impure.
  2. It must first come in contact with water (or another eligible liquid). Grain which has been kept totally dry since its harvest is not subject to the laws of tum’ah.

Having seen these two conditions, let us pose the following question: Is it a positive or a negative quality that something is susceptible to tum’ah?

On the one hand, it is easier to handle a foodstuff that is immune from impurity – one need not take any precautions. From this angle, susceptibility to tum’ah is a negative trait. However, upon closer examination of the first condition – that only food fit for human consumption is susceptible to tum’ah, not animal food – it seems obvious that susceptibility to tum’ah is an indicator of greater spiritual elevation. Namely, the loftier something is, the greater its vulnerability to corruption. Thus, in fact, vulnerability to contamination bears evidence to an object’s elevated status. As such it can only be perceived as a positive quality. (Consider this: Who is better off – One who has a beautiful diamond, but must take care not to lose or damage it; or one who has no diamond at all?…)

Animals are limited beings – they do not possess free will to choose between good and bad. The fodder that fuels them thus has limited potential – therefore its vulnerabilities are also limited. Humans are ethical beings: they use their food to fuel their minds, to ponder the mysteries of life, and ultimately to choose between good and bad. Therefore they require a more refined fuel – something that is fit for human consumption. Along with this comes increased vulnerability: Only human food can be rendered impure.

The same, say mefarshim (Torah commentators – see Week in Review V 30) can be said about all aspects of life. There are those who choose to “play it safe” – to whom ignorance is bliss. What they don’t know can’t hurt them – so they choose to know very little. With less knowledge comes less responsibility. For example: As long as one is not aware of the suffering of others, he can not be held accountable for not having taken care of them. If one has never learned mussar (classical Jewish moral/ethical/spiritual teachings), he can not be held responsible for not having fulfilled its teachings. Like the ostrich who escapes danger by burying her head in the sand, this person avoids the risk of suffering “spiritual impurity” (and personal failure) by avoiding true knowledge and refraining from self-analysis. It is true that he has limited his susceptibility. Yet, like the animal fodder, his potential is also very limited.

The “refined” individual seeks knowledge, even though he is well aware of the responsibility it entails. He refuses to be satiated by an inadequate diet of spiritual fodder.

The second law stipulates that only food that has come in contact with water is subject to contamination. Perhaps this too alludes to the above concept. One who leads a “dry life” lives safely, limited in both scope and vulnerability. In order for one to recognize his true potential, his life must take on a “liquid” quality.

A solid is a stationary entity. It remains in its designated place, and moves only when forced to do so. A liquid, by nature, is a flowing body. It constantly moves and ebbs, flowing from one station to the next, rarely remaining totally still.

Those who choose to live a “solid” life seek little interaction with others – particularly those who are on a higher spiritual/ethical plane than themselves. They are scared of the challenge it may bring. Like trees, they root themselves among peers similar to themselves who do not challenge them, who never “rustle their leaves.” They are scared to take affirmative steps toward spiritual elevation. With each step upwards, after all, comes the potential for a further and more painful fall.

On the other hand, the “fluid” individual looks to others to challenge his own parameters – “Kinas sofrim tarbeh chachmah – scholars’ jealousy brings increased wisdom.” Like water, he is constantly “on the move.” Though he realizes that at times he will ascend to great heights, only to then fall to even lower abysses, he also knows that with every effort he makes, successful or not, he will have grown. One who did not make the ascent has never glimpsed the magnificent view from atop the mountain, nor has he grown through experiencing the climb.

The days of Sefiras HaOmer between Pesach and Shavuos are meant to prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah (receiving the Torah). We must make sure that we are living lives “fit for human consumption.”

Text Copyright &copy 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.