Wholeness: Parashat M’tzora/Shabbat Ha-gadol

Torah Sparks
Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

How much control do we have over our bodies? What do we experience when we lose control of our body? Starting with last week’s Torah portion (- which is often combined with this week’s portion as one reading) and continuing into the reading for this Shabbat, the Torah gives us a few examples of a person enduring loss of control over their body or of some bodily function.

Last week we began with the experience of childbirth. Whatever preparations might be undertaken, the birth of a baby (- in times before inducing labor was possible) happened whenever it did, without the decision of the mother (or anyone else, of course). The next example discussed is a strange skin affliction, tzara`at. The affliction comes upon a person unbidden, and seems to leave the person without the Torah explicitly giving a reason or cause. And our Torah portion mentions other bodily problems – the involuntary discharge and emission of genital pus or seed or blood.

All of these examples of lack of control over our bodies have one legal feature in common. The Torah declares that each of these phenomena render the person ritually impure. Why is this the case? A compelling argument has been made that ritual impurity in the Torah stems from coming in contact with death. Indeed, a corpse renders impure anyone and anything in contact with it. And the examples evinced in our Torah readings can be connected with this idea.

But perhaps we can discern another factor at play. Human dignity is powerfully tied to our sense of individual sovereignty, our control over our physical independence (as well as our emotional and socio-political independence). We may feel shame at the very thought that others may see us break down in tears, unable to control our emotions. We gain stature when we learn to control our “going to the bathroom.” And we may feel severely diminished when we sense that we can no longer take care of our simplest bodily functions. A person who dirties their pants is said to suffer an “indignity.” The blessing we recite after we finish excreting our bodily waste is a statement of wondrous gratitude that this process is yet under some kind of our self-control.

So, the important equation – life=ritual purity and death=ritual impurity – can be supplemented by another equation: life-with-dignity= ritual purity and life-without-dignity=ritual impurity. Ritual purity, the prerequisite for access to anything and any place that is holy, demands that the person feel a sense of wholeness and self-control. As we approach the Festival of Freedom – Passover – we can appreciate that God gave to each of us, along with our freedom from any master who might seek to exert control over us, and by virtue of such freedom, the fragile possibility of individual dignity. Only with that gift could we hope to become a holy people.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

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Photo by Irene Giunta on Unsplash

Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.

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