In this week’s Torah portion, Moses elaborates the laws of impurity. Touching or holding something impure will render people, clothing, food, beverages, containers, wood, leather, earthenware and ovens impure. Shemini is concerned with the consequences of contact with living, ritually impure animals, as well as carcasses. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that skin disease, menstrual or birthing blood, seminal emissions or corpses likewise cause impurity. It is remarkable how contagious impurity can be.
The prophet Haggai points out that purity is not transferred as quickly or thoroughly. It may not seem fair, but what is ritually (and perhaps morally) pure just doesn’t “rub off” as easily as what is impure.
“Ask the priests for Torah instruction, saying, ‘If one carries consecrated meat in the skirt of one’s garment, and with one’s skirt touches bread or pottage or wine or oil or any food, shall it become consecrated?’
“And the priests answered and said, ‘No.’
“Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’
“The priests answered and they said, ‘It becomes unclean.’
“Haggai answered and said: ‘So it is with this people, and so it is with this nation before Me, says Adonai, and so it is with every work of their hands…'” (Haggai 2:11-14).
Even a small amount of ritual impurity carries consequences and can render large areas impure. To recover purity, people must wash, separate themselves from the community for varying lengths of time and even, under some circumstances, offer sacrifices or undergo inspection by a priest. Some affected objects can be purified; others must be destroyed.
While many of the laws of purity are no longer practiced, the laws of Passover offer a parallel example and experience for contemporary Jews. If you want to rid your house of chametz (leaven), doing 99 percemt of the job is not, halachically speaking, good enough. Even a tiny amount of residual chametz – even just seeing chametz – is not kosher for Passover. If we did not declare through the liturgy that any and all remaining chametz is “like the dust of the earth” to us, then virtually no home would or could be kosher for Passover. The theoretical capacity of one small biscuit to render an entire household unkosher for Passover is similar to the power of ritual impurity to overcome purity.
The idea that a breach in a pattern can be more decisive and influential than the pattern itself is not limited to the laws of purity and Passover. It applies to our physical world as well. If you exercise consistently for two months, your body will benefit, and you may well see signs of increased strength or endurance. Certainly, you cannot expect to gain stamina or muscle tone without exercise. But it is not guaranteed that you will even maintain your physical shape just because you exercise and eat right for two months; you may reach a plateau or lose ground. Yet, as those of us with sluggish Eastern European Jewish metabolisms can attest, it is virtually guaranteed that ceasing to exercise for a two-month period will diminish strength, endurance and fat-burning. Being in shape makes it easier to get back in shape after a lapse, but, whatever one’s fitness level, a lapse will surely be felt.
What is true for the laws of chametz and physics can be extrapolated to the realms of interpersonal relations and metaphysics. For example, while children benefit and are uplifted by hanging out with a good crowd, consorting with a bad crowd will bring them down with even greater speed and consistency.
Recently, I was short with two relatives whom I have generally treated with respect for the last 30-plus years. I am tempted to explain my behavior and motivations, but I won’t. The fact remains: I was rude, and the fallout from the incident was profound. Yes, the good will that I have accrued over the years has its own power and will, I hope, facilitate a complete reconciliation. However, the way of the world, as Haggai warns, is for my impure remarks to spread damage more predictably, reliably and decisively than any pure words or genuine apology can effect healing. That is why we must be so vigilant about each word, each interaction and each opportunity to hurt or heal.
If God is, as we say in our liturgy, “renewing in Divine goodness, daily, the work of Creation,” then we need to strive to do the same. Drawing on Divine goodness and power, we can create purity anew each day. And if we fail – when we inevitably fail, as fallible human beings – entropy takes over; impurity encroaches and “rubs off” readily. So we need to notice that and renew our commitment. Notice and renew. Notice and renew. The positive change that ensues in the external environment won’t hold, but we will be different – purer, more aware and better prepared for the next day’s challenge.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is the spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue, which now meets at Temple Ner Ma’arav in Encino. She is the co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”