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Parashat 07/20/2011

Parashat Matot

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff


Everything that can come through fire, you shall pass through fire. (31:23)

Rashi: Its purging corresponds to its use.

The quoted verse is referring to the kitchen goods captured from the Midianites, and refers to the process by which vessels which have been in contact with non-kosher food may be “kashered,” or cleansed of any non-kosher residue or taste.  This must be done before the vessel may be used; otherwise the taste or residue, while minute, is absorbed by the kosher food we want to cook in the vessel, contaminating it and prohibiting it for our consumption.  (Incidentally, this purging is different from teuveling, or immersing a newly-acquired vessel in the mikveh to remove ritual contamination (tumah).  Teuveling must be done even on a brand-new vessel if it was manufactured by non-Jews, and it has nothing to do with any prior non-kosher use.)


Depending on how the vessel is used, that is the way it is purged.  A vessel that is used to cook liquids (for example cholent) must be purged with hot liquids.  Something that is used directly over a fire, such as a barbeque spit, must be purged by direct contact with fire.  The general principle is that the way that tastes are absorbed in the vessel is the way that they must be removed from the vessel.  Direct contact with a fire “opens up” the metal more than hot water, and hot water more than cold water.  Therefore the same degree of “opening” is required for whatever was absorbed to be disgorged.  (If you have anything you need to kasher please consult an Orthodox Rabbi for the correct procedure, and do not rely on my one-line synopsis!)


I believe there is an analogy between the purging of vessels that have become contaminated by use with non-kosher substances, and individual human beings, who likewise can become contaminated with non-kosher thoughts and ideas.  One of the downsides of exile, even in as benign an environment as we find in N. America, is that we are forced to be in constant contact with the non-Jewish culture in which we are immersed.  As we have discussed on occasion, there is much in modern Western culture that is antithetical to Torah – permissive sexual morés are one obvious example.  Since most Jews (including Orthodox Jews) are engaged with the host culture, there is a certain degree to which the host culture’s manner of thinking is going to be absorbed in our thinking.  The question is, to what degree is foreign thinking absorbed, and what can we do about it?


I would suggest we can learn from the Midianites’ pots and pans.  The degree of absorption depends on the heat applied.  From physics we understand that heat is simply the energy of motion of the particles that compose a substance.  The hotter something is, the faster the molecules are moving about, and the more strongly they interact with one another.  And the hotter the utensil, the more it absorbs tastes.  In the same way, the more intensely we are involved in the life of the host culture, the more we come into contact and interact with individuals who embody the thinking of that culture, and the more opportunity arises for it to infiltrate into our thinking.  There are Jewish groups who try to avoid this issue altogether by insulating themselves from the host culture.  Since we all need inputs from our surroundings (e.g. we have to eat and we need clothes and a roof over our heads) complete insulation is impossible, even if it were desirable.  Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce our interaction with society, especially in those areas that are particularly objectionable.  We don’t have to go to the movies, if we can’t find a kosher movie.  We don’t absolutely need a TV – I have done very nicely without one for about 10 years now, and I find I have time for more important things.


We are still left with the issue of purging ourselves from the improper influences that we imbibe from our interactions with our surroundings.  Again, let us turn to the procedure of purging pots and pans.  This is done with fire and water.  Note that Torah is compared both to water and to fire.  Water is of course the womb of life; modern science tells us that life developed in an aquatic environment, and our own development in utero is certainly in an aquatic environment.  The ocean is often used as an analogy for the “ocean” of pure being – vast and unbounded, as in and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereishit 1:2).  Water gives life; to a desert people the analogy needs no explanation.  The ultimate giver of Life is Torah, which puts our finite individuality in tune with the infinite.


Torah is also compared to fire.  The Torah we have is said to be a reflection of the Supernal Torah, which is written with black fire upon white fire.  Moshe calls Torah a “fiery law” (aish dat – Devarim 33:2) in Parashat v’Zot haB’rachah and R. Eliezer compares the words of the Sages to glowing hot coals (Pirke Avot 2:15).  The beginning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s mission of course was at the burning bush.  Torah shines with the radiance of the Eternal One; we might even say it is a somewhat congealed form of that radiance.


So to purge ourselves of foreign influences in our thought and our behavior, we should immerse ourselves in fire and water – that is, in Torah.  To the extent that we have been intensively engaged with the secular world, to that extent we need to engage intensively with Torah.  We are commanded to make Torah our main focus in life in any event; how much more so if we have to play catch-up!  Immersing ourselves in Torah is immersing ourselves in pure existence, the source of holiness and purity, and infusing that value into our minds and hearts.  Before that infusion, no impurity can stand; like a great flood it flushes away anything improper.  It leaves our will in tune with Gd’s Will, our thoughts completely pure and all our actions supportive of life on every level.  Most of us have not lived our lives this way; the sooner we start the process of return the better.  This three week period that we have just entered is an ideal time to step back and re-evaluate our priorities, and decide what we want to have absorbed in our consciousness.  May we use the time wisely and choose well!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 15

Shammai says: Make your Torah study a fixed duty…

R. Bulka: It is important never to get so lost in helping others that the self is forgotten.  “Make your Torah study a fixed duty,” so that the time needed to develop your own self is sacred and inviolable…

We must always prioritize.  We are physical creatures, and as such we are limited by space, and most important, by time.  We have 24 hours in a day, and most of us have 30 hours of things to do.  What do we do first?  What is most important to us?  We have to bear in mind that there is a level of our lives that is beyond time and space, a level of life that is eternal.  If we cultivate that first, then it enhances all our other activities, until it seems as if we can actually squeeze 30 hours of accomplishment into a 24 hour day.  But if we neglect that, we will spin our wheels and not even fill the 24 hours we do have very productively.  If we immerse ourselves in Torah we remove the impurities that inhibit the flow of energy and intelligence from the infinite source of energy and intelligence into the world of activity, and become like a superconductor, with no resistance, no waste of energy, no diversion of resources away from our goals.