It seems more than kismet that Passover falls when it does, following on the heels of the parashiyot of Leviticus in which we discuss the most base of subjects. In fact, rabbis and commentators through the ages have found the laws of tum'ah and tahorah (ritual impurity and purity) covered in these weeks before Passover so unsettling that, presumably in reaction, they have enthusiastically embraced the following statement from the Talmud: "Questions are asked and lectures are given on the laws of Passover beginning thirty days before" (BT Pesachim 6a). Surely, this is an avoidance tactic on the part of rabbis, but maybe it is also for the sake of the community—to save them from a discussion that would make them lose their appetites for the kiddush that follows services.
I would like to embrace the rites and rituals and refocus our understanding of these seemingly disturbing halakhic categories, tum'ah and tahorah. Every translation is commentary, and, historically, these categories have been translated as impure/pure and unclean/clean. With those translations comes the implication of evil versus good.
The Talmud relates an intriguing commentary on a verse describing the creation of humanity, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7): “Rav Nahman, son of Rav Hisda, taught: ‘Why in “the Lord God formed man” is formed written with two yods?’” (Berachot 61a). Any idiosyncrasy in the biblical text is fodder for rabbinic interpretation, and here the Talmud raises a spelling concern. Rav Nahman is questioning why, in this verse, the word for formed (ya–yyitzer) is written with two of the Hebrew letter yod, instead of in its normal manner with one yod.
Answering his own question, Nahman insists that we are created with two inclinations, one convincing us to be good and the other pulling us to be evil. A fitting commentary on the spelling discrepancy, but, after some give and take, we are presented with an alternative reason: “It must be interpreted [the point of the two yods] as Rav Shimon ben Pazzi said: ‘Woe is me because of my Creator [yozri], woe is me because of my inclination [yizri]!’” The Hebrew language is rich; a single three-letter root can have multiple meanings, depending on context and vowel placement. This is a perfect example. With some Hebrew acrobatics, Shimon ben Pazzi is reading the Hebrew word va–yyitzer with two possible translations, creator and inclination. The doubling of the yods provokes him to use its double meaning.
Emmanuel Levinas, in his reading of this paragraph of the Talmud, elucidates the nuanced difference between the understandings of Rav Nahman and Rav Shimon ben Pazzi and further demonstrates the richness of their commentaries:
The word va–yyitzer, broken down into vay–yitzer would mean “woe to the creature” (vay, an interjection like alas, is common in popular Jewish speech, notably in Yiddish): woe to the creature, woe when I obey my Creator (for in obeying my Creator I am constantly disrupted by my creaturely nature), but woe is to me also when I obey my essence as creature, my inclinations. I am still torn, but this time not between the right and the left, as a sign of my freedom, but between the high and the low. Between the Law and nature, between the Creator and the condition of creature, to be man remains as dramatic as the conflict between opposing passions (Nine Talmudic Readings, 165-166).
Rav Nahman’s understanding leads to a dichotomy between right and wrong. We are created with two inclinations and, according to Levinas, we are torn between the “right and the left”— between the ethical and unethical, between what we should do and should not.
Rav Shimon ben Pazzi, however, exists in a world where we are torn “between the high and the low”—between the desire to do the will of our creator and to follow our “creaturely nature.” The book of Psalms (8:6) defines us as having been created as “a little lower than the angels,” and this position is essentially where we strive to be in relation to God. Through ritual and rite, through law and observance, we maintain our connection to divinity. But, as Levinas demonstrates, we are torn between living up to that ideal and our baser instincts as human creatures.
To conceptualize the difference, we are not looking at a model of a scale, where one side is right and the other wrong, but more like a ladder, where our human nature rests near the bottom, and our divine connection is on the higher rungs. Our religious system of laws and rites is designed to assist us in maintaining our elevated status on this continuum between humanity and divinity. We continually negotiate the tension between our human nature and our divine desire. Unlike the scales of right and wrong, there is no value judgment on the humanity/divinity continuum.
Applying this model to the world of Leviticus, we get an entirely different understanding of the states of tum’ah and tahorah. If our struggle on the continuum is to reach as high as we can toward divinity, then that which brings us lower, according to Levinas, is our “condition of creature,” i.e., that which is inherently human—our bodily functions, afflictions, organs, and tissues—everything that makes us more “human.”
Thus, when we are most in touch with our creaturely nature, we are not capable, and, on some level, it is not appropriate for us to cleave to the divine; hence we are in a legal state of tum’ah— ritually unfit for connection to the divine through ritual or service.
However, after recognizing the tum’ah this week and engaging in the purity rites that we will read next week in Parashat M’tzora, we take the first steps away from our creaturely nature and begin to strive to reach the divine side of the continuum. At this state of tahorah, we are now ritually prepared to engage with divinity.
Through our biased translation, we have interpreted the states of tum’ah and tahorah as laden with negative values and judgments. But these conditions are not meant to distance us emotionally from the community, nor are they meant to embarrass or humiliate; they are designed with one specific intention—to fashion a society where all find themselves on this continuum and are inspired to realize that God’s desire is for all of us to strive for divinity. We are truly created “a little lower than the angels,” and it is a constant endeavor to maintain that status.