Boundaries: Not Only Healthy, but Divine

Metzora By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 3, 2014 / 5774

Boundaries are the focal point of Parashat Metzora, and indeed they are the obsession of the book of Leviticus. The precise placement of the Israelite encampment along with all the appurtenances of the sacrificial cult, laws pertaining to people and places struck by leprosy, and individuals who have suffered discharge or women who have given birth all underscore the toraitic embrace of boundaries. Indeed, Leviticus 15:31 declares, “You will put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.” Borders, and specifically those related to the Tabernacle, represent liminal points between purity and impurity, life and death, and Israel and other nations. How are we to understand this very complex notion today?

Joseph B’khor Shor delineates the reason for the Torah’s strict legislation on boundaries. Commenting on the verse above, he writes,

I will spurn them if they become unclean like the rest of the nations. I dwell among them as I dwell among angels and so it is fitting for them to be clean, pure, holy and a chosen nation. But if they should come before Me in an impure state or eat in My Temple upon My Table in such an unholy state, they will die by karet, “cutting off.” For one who enters the holy precinct impure or who eats in an impure state is cut off [from his people]. But if they will guard themselves in a pure state, then it will be good for them.

Israelite chosenness and proximity to God are described as the key reasons for puritanical tendencies. Just as God dwells with angels above, so too does God dwell with his partners below—Israel. Moreover, if the laws of purity are disregarded, the Israelites will fall prey to a spiritual death, that of being cut off from the Israelite body politic.

As Baruch Levine explains,

Although an impure person may not be guilty of any offense against God, as is true in these laws dealing with illnesses and natural physiological processes, such impurities nevertheless threaten the status of the entire community if left unattended. If the sanctuary were defiled, God’s wrath would be aroused against the entire community. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 98)

The concern of both Torah and the people is to safeguard God’s Presence among the people. Accordingly, biblical Israelites were keenly attuned to their physical selves and surroundings. Not only are we to continue in a similar vein, but we must also pay careful attention to our ethical and moral selves. The ethical, balanced with the physical, has the potential to underscore God’s Presence and the divine qualities of the Jewish people.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.