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Parashat 04/06/2011

Parashat Metzora

by Robert Rabinoff

One of the bedrock areas of Jewish observance is taharat hamishpachah – family purity.  The basic laws are given in our parashah.  They require a separation between husband and wife during the wife’s menstrual period; the practice has evolved such that, effectively, spouses separate for about 2 weeks beginning with the onset of the monthly period.  Since Judaism does not advocate (or even hardly condone) celibacy, why does it insist that couples remain celibate for roughly half their married lives?

Jewish law governs every aspect of human life – what we eat, what we say, what we look at and listen to, how we treat one another, how we relate to Gd.  The purpose of this governance is to free the soul from its attachment to the body.  As humankind was originally created the body’s relation to the soul was like a garment that one can wear or take off as one pleases.  Thus Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were naked, but they were not ashamed.  They were not identified with their bodies; their bodies were simply outer coverings that their souls used to interact with the material world.

All this changed when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Just as Good and Evil became mixed up inextricably in their natures, so their souls became attached to their bodies in a more intimate embrace.  Unfortunately this meant that the body now has the power to drag the soul down, more than, in most cases, the soul has the power to elevate the body.  Jewish law is a set of procedures to rectify this situation.  (See Malbim to Bereishit for much deeper analysis.)

Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not view the material world as something to be denied or suppressed.  The material level of creation is simply the most expressed form of the inner Divinity that is at the core of all creation.  Rather, Jews are commanded to sanctify the material world – that is, to infuse the outer shell with the inner Divinity.  In fact, this is the whole purpose of creation.  If we can speak in such terms, we might say that it is fine for Gd to be alone within His infinite Self, but if there is a creation “separate” from Gd as it were, constantly evolving towards perfection, towards sanctity, this adds a dimension that brings even greater fulfillment to Gd.

The basis of this added dimension of fulfillment is separation.  A famous physicist once commented that a mother loves her baby and wants to hold it close, but sometimes she holds the baby at arm’s length so she can enjoy interacting with it.  Our own esoteric tradition posits an act of “contraction” (tzimtzum) on Gd’s part to create a “separation” between Himself and the creation.  Once there is separation there is the possibility of a relationship, and it is in this relationship that we find the increased fulfillment.

Now we can come back to taharat hamishpachah.  The relationship between a husband and wife is, ideally, one of the closest found in human society.  It reflects the relationship between Adam and Eve, our forebears, who were created bound together as one creature and only later separated.  Their intimate relationship is an important part of this bonding.  We recognize that the sex drive is one of the most powerful drives in our makeup, and it can be used to create holiness, or, as we unfortunately see too often, degradation.  The laws of taharat hamishpachah allow us to achieve a balance between unity and separation, between material pleasure and spiritual advancement.  By learning to restrain our physical desires, we create a space for our souls to flourish.  In practical terms, we learn to relate to our spouse on all the levels that can get pushed aside or glossed over when our minds our preoccupied with physical intimacy.  Then, when physical intimacy is resumed, it is no longer merely physical – the physical pleasure, which is, after all, fleeting, is now deepened and sanctified by our expanded spirits.  Ironically, we grow closer by means of our separation.

Creation is the infinite manifesting itself in the finite, and the finite creation becoming integrated until it reflects fully the infinite value from which it emerged.  It is the swing between separation and reunification.  Through the genius of Torah and halachah, each one of us can participate in this dance in our personal lives.  Try it – you’ll like it!