It is probably fair to say that Judaism seems slightly preoccupied with purity. We have innumerable laws governing various types of purity and impurity, and much of Jewish life, particularly for women in this day and age, revolves around one’s status on the purity-impurity continuum. Both Tazria and Metzora discuss some examples of the deeds, events, or encounters that render one impure, such as a woman’s status following childbirth, the Mitzvah of Bris Milah on the eighth day after a baby boy is born, and the case of the Metzora, an individual who is stricken with Tzoraas and must be exiled from the camp for seven days. Our Parshios also then discuss the subsequent purification processes involved for each of these situations.
There is much to be gained from learning about the details of each of these Mitzvos. Zooming out of the specifics, however, there is a much deeper and global idea inherent in these laws that underscores a fundamental psychological reality in Torah Judaism. Underlying the entire discussion of these laws of purity and impurity is a simple yet integral question: Why are we subject to impurity from the moment of birth, and faced with the seemingly constant struggle of seeking purification? Could God not have made Jewish people intrinsically immune to impurity? We are known, after all, as a Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kadosh - Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation (Shemos 19:6)!
The Midrash (quoted by Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe in his Parsha podcast) relates a fascinating story about the Roman general, Turnus Rufus, who asked Rabbi Akiva why we perform a Bris Milah, seeming to reject God’s version of man and needing to “upgrade it,” so to speak. Rabbi Akiva explained that God purposely creates us imperfect and invites man to partner with him in order to complete the process of perfection.
Rabbi Akiva emphasized this point by bringing Turnus Rufus a stalk of wheat and a fresh loaf of bread. The wheat, he explained, is God’s creation, but it is not edible. We take the wheat and upgrade it into bread, perfecting the process. Similarly, when a child is born, we complete the process of perfection through Bris Milah. Turnus Rufus conceded this point, but then asked why God doesn’t just create us already circumcised. After all, noted the general, if God is all-powerful and in charge of creation, could He not have simply made it so that all boys are born without a foreskin? Rabbi Akiva explained that the entire purpose of life is to grow, and that God wants us to purify ourselves, to better ourselves. God makes us imperfect by design, and gave us Mitzvos, like circumcision, to perfect ourselves.
God made us imperfect in order to gift us the beautiful experience of self-actualization, the topmost rung on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We are wired to resist change, to struggle with growth, and yet we are also designed with inherent flaws in our characters and our ways of thinking, because the ultimate struggle of man is to become himself by overcoming himself. We are forever striving toward purity because it is through the constant change of status from impure to pure that gives a feeling of completion and competence.
No human is born without proclivities for anger, lust, judgement, worry, or fear. There are none of us without insecurities or vices. And yet, God asks of us to connect with His purity and perfection; to overcome, or perhaps in many cases to use, these very “weaknesses” and flaws in order to grow closer to Him, and to do so by growing into ourselves. This is most tangibly demonstrated in the fact that we are born flawed, and the Bris symbolizes the beginning of a Jew’s lifelong journey toward purification. This is also why we feel so deeply satisfied and competent when we master something with which we once struggled and why relationships are made all that much sweeter by the trials and tribulations you go through with another person. Flaws, challenges, and impurities create a vacuum that can then be filled with purity, growth and connection.
The period of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the exciting lead-up to Shavuos, commemorates the fifty days between Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah. When we left Egypt, we were on the 50th level of impurity. In fact, the Midrash relates that the Heavenly angels were scandalized that God was willing to redeem the Jews, who were, for all intents and purposes, idol worshippers. Yet, through the fifty days between the Exodus and receiving the Torah, the Jews were transformed. Each day, we rose to a new level, cleansing ourselves of impurity until we reached the loftiest of heights and merited hearing God speak to us directly.
The month of Iyar, which begins this Shabbos, is a month of healing, cleansing, and purification. The letters Alef, Yud, Yud, and Reish stand for “Ani Hashem (yud+yud) Rofecha,” I am God, Your healer. Of course, during this pandemic, this is an even greater comfort. But even on a different scale, Iyar is a month when we are healed of all kinds of impurities, when the blockages between us and God, between who we are now and who we strive to be, between our state of impurity and disconnection and the heights of purity and connection, are removed. Sefirah is this healing process: slowly, each day, for seven weeks, we rise to new heights. Each day, the excitement builds as we shed the layers of filth, doubt, apathy, and fear that separate us from our innermost selves, from God, and from each other.
Just as we are born flawed, with endless capacity to become impure in an instant, we are born with an incredible thirst for growth, and the incredible potential to grow and change, to be instantly purified if we are adequately prepared. A woman prepares herself to immerse in the Mikvah, and its waters are only purifying if she has done this intricate preparation. We count each day of the week as one toward Shabbos, two toward Shabbos… preparing for Shabbos throughout the week so that the moment that Shabbos begins, we are enveloped by its holiness and light and can imbibe it effectively. So, too, this time period, these days of Sefirah and this month of Iyar, provide an amazing opportunity to prepare for the unparalleled purification process of receiving the Torah.
When we read of all the different kinds of purity and impurity this Shabbos, let us begin to hum the words of Rabbi Akiva that are appropriately synonymous with Lag Ba’Omer, the day on which his students stopped dying. The Mishnah in Yoma (8:9) relates that Rabbi Akiva said, Ashreichem Yisrael, lifnei mi atem Mitaharim, Umi Mitaher Eschem? Avichem Shebashamayim, V’omer Mikveh Yisrael Hashem, Ma Mikva mitaher es Hatameyim Af Hakadosh Baruch Hu Mitaher Es Yisrael.” “How lucky are you Klal Yisrael! In front of Who do you become pure, and Who is purifying you? Your Father in heaven, and he (R’ Akiva) said that Hashem is the Mikvah of Klal Yisrael and just as a Mikvah purifies those who are impure, so does God purify Israel.”
Let us prepare ourselves to be immersed in purity, for God is our Mikvah!