Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora by Ari Hart
This week we read the parshioyot of tazria and metzora. Many of us struggle to connect with these parshiot. What does all this about purity and impurity, and accessing the mishkan/temple have to say to us in our world today? What was the point back then, and is it still relevant today?
The Rabmam, in Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 47, explains the reason behind these purity laws:
The entire intent was to inspire awe in those who turned to the Temple, that they see it and be fearful, as it is said, “You shall … venerate My sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). When a person frequents a place, its impact on his soul diminishes, and he gradually is less awed by it… Since the objective was to maintain this sense of awe, the Almighty cautioned those who are unclean against entering the Sanctuary, by stipulating many sorts of uncleanness, to the extent that hardly a person turns out to be clean, save for a very few.
According to the Rambam, the laws of tumah and tahara served to protect the intensity of drawing close to God and performing korbanot. They protected against routine and the loss of spiritual impact. What is not mentioned in the last sentence is that though hardly any people are naturally clean, through the processes in the Torah almost any person may become clean.
In my own social justice work, I sometimes struggle with routine and loss of personal impact. An ongoing volunteer opportunity, contributing to a social change organization, or education about social justice, all can fall victim to these traps. They’re just another volunteer hour, another campaign, another social injustice. Losing the sense of excitement and purpose, especially around the holy work that in my heart and mind I was so passionate about, was scary.
How does someone address this? One approach is to take the Rambam’s view of the purpose of tumah and tahara and apply it tzedek. For example: before performing direct service on behalf of others, performing netilat yadayim might purify and dedicate our hands for their holy work. Before embarking on a service learning trip, a visit to the mikvah might renew our sense of purpose and mission in the world. A 30 minute meditation on purifying one’s intentions would support the positive beginning a day of tzedek work. These, and other forms of protecting the impact of tzedek work on our soul through self awareness and ritual are, as the Rambam points out, critical to maintaining the sanctity of our work.