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Parashat Chukat 5773 — 06/12/2013

Parashat Chukat 5773 — 06/12/2013

This is the law of a person who dies in a tent – anyone who enters the tent and everything in the tent will be impure (tamei) for seven days. (19:14)

By telling us that the laws of ritual impurity and the restoration of purity (in the case of impurity through contact with the death of a human being) are chukim, decrees of Gd the reason for which are not discernable through human intelligence, I believe Torah is intimating to us that there are levels of existence that transcend the intellect.  Since the intellect is that faculty of the human being that makes distinctions, this level must be beyond distinctions, the level of unity at the basis of all distinctions.  Even so, we must try to comprehend this level, so let us make an attempt.

Since tumah, ritual impurity is associated with death, and death is the separation of the soul from the body, somehow the phenomenon of tumah has something to do with the interaction of the spiritual world (as represented by the soul) and the material world (as represented by the body).  R. Noson Weisz, writing in 5760 in his column Ma’ayanot on has this to say:

For the soul was supplied with the innate power to transform the body. Although the body in itself is opaque to the penetration of the Divine Light and therefore interferes with man’s ability to connect with the light that emanates from Gd’s essence, the soul can overpower this opacity and render the body transparent. In this transparent state, the body can also experience the light that emanates from Gd and flows into it through the soul. Thus the man who is the combination of his transformed body and his soul is capable of cleaving to Gd. This state of cleavage is the eternal bliss that is called Olam Haba, or the world-to-come. Inherently then, there is no need to separate the body from the soul, which is the state known as death. Instead of dying, man’s soul would cleanse his body and he could directly enter the state of eternal life.

I think this explanation gives us a very clear picture, not only of the relationship between soul and body of the individual, but it can be extended to apply to the relationship between spiritual and material in general.

Modern physics tells us that creation is structured in layers: the surface layer is made up of molecules, the molecules are made up of atoms, the atoms of a nucleus and electrons, the nucleus of protons and neutrons, the protons and neutrons of still smaller particles.  As one goes to finer and finer levels, the power and the abstraction both grow.  Ultimately, physicists believe that all forms and phenomena in the universe are manifestations of one underlying, unified field.  As one moves “outward” from this unified field, the phenomena become more concrete, or, in R. Weisz’s words, more opaque.

Now in truth, as we have mentioned before, the different “layers” of creation described by modern physics are not actually distinct from one another like the layers of a cake.  Rather they are descriptions of the same reality looked at from different scales of space, time and energy (subtler levels are smaller, faster and higher energy).  As one moves from the subtle to the gross, the laws become simpler, yet more approximate.  Newtonian physics is much simpler than quantum physics, as any freshman physics major will attest, but it is also a less accurate description of reality.  The subtleties available on the finer levels are blurred or smudged, much like fine classical music sounds muddy when played through a cheap audio system that can’t really reproduce the higher frequencies.

Similarly, the whole of the physical world is a manifestation of subtler layers of creation, all the way “down” to the transcendental level.  These finer, spiritual levels are characterized by far greater subtlety and power than the more surface layers.  We are generally not aware of these levels because our senses are generally not subtle enough to detect them – it is as if they vibrate too quickly for our physical senses to respond.  In some ways this may not be just a metaphor.  Human hearing is limited to frequencies below about 20 KHz.  The tiny hairs in the inner ear that vibrate in response to sounds coming in simply are not flexible enough to respond to any higher frequencies.  Other animals have different limitations (hence dog whistles that we can’t hear), but the principle is the same.  Because the body is physical matter, subject to the law of inertia, it is oblivious to many forms of input.  Thus, we say it is opaque to the light that comes from the transcendental level.

The soul, on the other hand, does not have these same limitations.  A soul that is completely pure can respond to the subtlest vibrations – it is completely transparent.  A soul that is more attached to the material is as it were stiffer, and less able to respond – it is more opaque.

Now here, I think, is the link to the concept of tumahTumah is a kind of spiritual opacity, a stiffness (rigor mortis?), a dullness, an inability to respond to the subtlest signals that emanate from the transcendent, the level of ultimate purity.  A lifeless human body is the most opaque, stiff and insensate form of human existence – it is the very essence of tumah, and somehow it conveys this lack of responsiveness to other souls (and other objects, which can then pass this opacity on) in its vicinity.  For, as R. Weisz points out, the mission of the soul is to fully vitalize the material body, until it, too, becomes transparent to Gd’s light.  (Note that R. Weisz goes on to point out that this ideal has not been realizable since Adam’s sin, and will not be realizable until the coming of Mashiach.)

Here is an example that happened to me about a week before writing this.  I have a desk lamp that I keep on all Shabbat.  Unfortunately it has a touch switch – you don’t even have to press it to turn it on and off.  On Shabbat afternoon a careless wave of my hand turned the light off.  (“It’s alright, I can sit in the dark and besides, you never write anyway.”)  I did have enough other light in the room to read by, but I noticed that the lamp itself was now casting a shadow that darkened my books, obscuring the other light.  What had once been a source of light, was now blocking out the light.  This is tumah – the body, which had housed the soul and therefore was a source of light, now is inert and casts a shadow instead.

And just as the soul dwells in the human body, so Gd dwells, as it were, in the physical world to vitalize and purify it, so that it can reflect His glory and His perfection to the fullest.  In fact, our souls are Gd’s emissaries to the world, the means by which the world is perfected.  For the human soul appears to be that unique creation that can, by exercise of its free will, purify itself and attune itself with Gd, and thereby provide a conduit for Gd’s light to illuminate all aspects of Creation.  In the Torah Gd has given us the guidelines through which we can accomplish this mission, thereby becoming Gd’s partner in the perfection of the entire cosmos.  Living according to Torah may be a challenge, but as Gd told Avraham after meeting his challenges: Your reward is very great. (Gen 15:1)


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 5

Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt and ten at the sea.

The Holy One, Blessed is He, brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and ten at the sea.

I picked this Mishnah since I am writing this just one week before Pesach.  R. Lau brings our attention to the fact that the Mishnah’s first clause is in passive voice while the second is in active voice.  The truth is, our forefathers were hardly deserving of miraculous redemption, having largely assimilated into Egyptian society.  Therefore they were passive recipients of Gd’s bounty, because Gd loved them as descendants of the righteous Patriarchs.  The Egyptians, on the other hand, took an active role in tormenting their Jewish slaves with all manner of work in the fields; and all the labor that they forced [the Jews] to do was hard and meaningless labor (Ex 1:14 with Rashi).  Therefore, Gd actively punished them.  But in truth, the plagues that punished the Egyptians were the very same plagues that were done on behalf of the Jews.  Perhaps the matter is really one of perspective.  The Egyptians were doers; unfortunately they were doers of evil.  Therefore Gd is described as “doing” as well.  The Jews, on the other hand, had a long-standing tradition from Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov about Gd, that He is transcendental and all the activity in the whole world is simply an ongoing expression of His Will.  They did not need to act at all, as Moses told them at the Sea: Gd will fight for you, and you will be silent. (Ex 14:14)