Spiritual purity vs. physical purity: Make the comparison
Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The beginning of chapter 5 in this week’s portion stresses that our nation must be careful to remove “spiritual contamination” from our midst.
I hold adult education classes once a week for my congregation, and when my lessons involve explanation or study about what makes a person spiritually unclean or impure, my students become somewhat confused.
Their understanding of being unclean or impure is solely from a physical standpoint. For example, many questions are asked why upon leaving a cemetery must we wash our hands, and more prevalent curiosity stems from the Cohanim on why they are forbidden at a cemetery altogether.
“After all,” as one student put it to me, “I always get dressed and washed top-notch to pay respects to my friends and loved ones. I wouldn’t dare think of being the least bit out of place or dirty at such a service.”
I explain to them the same message I convey here to explain this part of Naso.
Physical cleanliness is indeed extremely important in Torah law. It is
certainly not exempt despite not getting the full attention in scripture as spiritual cleanliness does. (It should be pointed out that Torah portions Tazria and Metzora, chapters 12 through 15 of Leviticus, are completely dedicated to teaching the laws of leprosy and spiritual impurity and uncleanliness.) In addition, next week’s portion of Bahaloscha, chapter 12 specifically verse 10, “Miriam was afflicted with leprosy like snow” as punishment for her loshan hora (evil speech) against others without their knowledge, against Moses our rabbi, along with several other instances throughout the written Torah. Many times physical impurity results in spiritual impurity, so it is extremely important to keep physically clean for spiritual and physical reasons.
Still, spiritual cleanliness is a separate entity. Upon leaving a cemetery, unless we fall in the mud, our physical hygiene does not change. Leprosy, although a horrid and outwardly embarrassing condition to deal with medically (may G-d forbid this on any of us), shows no evidence of foul odor or physical dirt, though these instances are spiritually dirty.
As is the case with all spirituality — pure, impure, righteous, evil, mitzvot and avayra (commandments, sins) their concepts are far above the understanding and identification of human beings and nature. Just as reward for our mitzvot and punishment for our sins remain mysterious and to many of us illogical, so too, spiritual cleanliness remains just that — spiritual, not visible as we or our logic understands. Yet as Jewish people, our neshamahs (souls) understand. After all, being spiritually clean or unclean refers to our souls as physical cleanliness does to our bodies.
Kohanim are to be free of all spiritual impurity. So for those who wonder if they are being deprived due to punishment, it is quite the opposite. As a kohen your souls are demanded to stay fully clean due to your high spiritual status in our faith.
So the saying “cleanliness is next to G-dliness,” although not a specific Torah proverb, is indeed a true and valid proclamation in all aspects of physicality and holiness. Just check chapter 5 verses 1-10 in Parshas Naso.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)