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Posted on June 7, 2002 (5760) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Friday Night:

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 a hospital.

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 opposite goals.

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 end.

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)

Shabbos Day:

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 (Vayikra 13:1-2)

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! 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,
Pinchas Winston