Death and Defilement

Rabbi Richard Borah

The Torah has many complex laws about conditions that require an individual to be separated from the community for a period of time or to be restricted from entrance into the Sanctuary. These laws of “tumah” (impurity) and “taharah” (purity), describe the various situations which bring about these separation, the lengths of time of the different separations and how this status requiring separation can be spread to other through forms of contact. The parsha of Tazria opens with a description of the restrictions that are placed upon a woman who has given birth. The parsha then focuses on the restrictions of someone who contracts a skin condition termed “tzaraas”, which is often imperfectly translated as the chronic infectious disorder called “leprosy”, due to having some similar characteristics. The Torah states in Vayikra (13:1-3):

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

2. If a man has a se'eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzaraas on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.

3. The kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzaraas. When the kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean.

Maimonides (“the Rambam”), in his philosophical work, “The Guide for the Perplexed”, discusses the condition of “tzaraas” and how it is a miraculous disorder through which God punished the sin of slander. The condition was limited to the Jewish people, once they entered the land of Israel.

The uncleanness through tzaraas we have already explained. Our Sages have also clearly stated the meaning thereof. All agree that tzaraas is a punishment for slander. The disease begins in the walls of the houses (Lev. xiv. 33, seq.). If the sinner repents, the object is attained: if he remains in his disobedience, the disease affects his bed and house furniture: if he still continues to sin, the leprosy attacks his own garments, and then his body. This is a miracle received in our nation by tradition, in the same manner as the effect of the trial of a faithless wife (Num. v. ii,). The good effect of this belief is evident. Leprosy is besides a contagious disease, and people almost naturally abhor it, and keep away from it. (Guide Book 3, Chapter 47)

When the Jewish people lived in the Holy Land under God’s undiminished providence, the connection between the natural order of the physical world and the moral order of the world (reward and punishment) was more apparent than in the world today. Although we are enjoined by the Torah to reflect on our actions and repent when we experience disease or other hardship, as well to praise and thank God when we experience success or joy, we do not perceive with any clarity the pattern of connections between these two areas. Occasionally we gain a glimpse of this continuity between nature and judgment, but when the Jews lived in the land in the time of Joshua and the prophets, the connection between these was much more apparent. In the case of “tzaraas”, according to Maimonides, the punishment proceeded from the walls of the home, to the person’s clothing and then to the skin, stopping at the earlier stages if the person repented. Nachmanides (“the Ramban”) writes about the miraculous nature of the punishment of “tzaraas” in his commentary on Vayikra 13:47 (“And when the plague of leprosy is in a garment”). He explains that the punishment of “tzaraas” is for any type of sin—not only slander. He states:

This (tzaraas) is not in the natural order of things, nor does it ever happen in the world (outside Israel) and similarly leprosy of houses (is not a natural phenomenon). But when Israel is wholly devoted to God, then His spirit is upon them always, to maintain their bodies, clothes and houses in a good appearance. Thus as soon as one of them commits a sin or transgression, a deformity appears in his flesh, or on his garments, or in his house, revealing that God has turned aside from him…And in the Torath Kohanim the Sages further interpreted that a house does not contract impurity until after the conquest and division (of the Land by Israel) and until after each and every individual clearly knows his portion. The reason for this law is that only then do they have the ease of mind to know the Eternal and the Divine Glory dwell among them.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), in his major essay “Halakhic Man”, clarifies a fundamental aspect of Judaism as it relates to “tumah” (ritual impurity) and provides a united principle for the underlying structure of the law in this area. He explains that the source of “tumah” is contact with the dead and that this halakhic structure reflects the “this-worldly” focus of Judaism and that life, in all its physical, mortal aspects, is precious and holy. The Rav states:

Judaism has a negative attitude toward death; a corpse defiles; a grave defiles; a person who has been defiled by a corpse is defiled for seven days and is forbidden to eat any sacred offering or enter the Temple; a Nazarite who has been defiled by a corpse cancels his previous count and must carry out the shavings of his head for defilement and bring an offering; the priests of God are forbidden to defile themselves with the dead. He whose holiness is of a higher order than the holiness of his fellow is subject to a more severe prohibition against defilement…Death is the symbol of the most intense defilement; therefore he who is holy unto the Lord must keep far away from such defilement. (pgs. 31-32)

We can speculate about how this “defilement of death” relates to the punishment of “tzaraas”. The person with “tzaraas” has sinned either with slander or in some other way and, as a result, receives a lesion that defiles and renders the person unable to enter the sanctuary or even to live among his or her fellow Jews. Death and sin are closely related according to the Torah. As King David states in Psalm 101:5: “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.”

Meaningful, truly human life has at its core the person’s experiencing of the presence of God. Sin as the primary cause of a person’s separation from God, it is a diminishment of life for the person. This is stated beautifully in a Midrash on the verse in parsha Vayishlach (31:4) “Hashem said to Moshe: behold, your days are drawing near to die.” The Midrash derives from the structure of the sentence that, just as days do not die, neither do the righteous. The Midrash states: “The righteous are considered alive, even in death, while the wicked are viewed as lifeless and dead even when they are alive."

“Tzaraas” renders the person into a type of living corpse. The sins the person has committed have reached the point where he or she is so distant from the presence of God that the person is “dead even when they are alive”. They are defiled, as well as having a powerfully defiling influence on others with whom they come in contact, similar to the defilement resulting from the contact with a dead body. By punishing the person with “tzaraas,” many positive outcomes are accomplished. The person who is involved in slander (according to Maimonides) is separated from the community, which minimizes the person’s ability to continue to damage other with slander. The person is given a powerful, disturbing and clear sign of his sin and his need to repent. The person with “tzaraas” is given the opportunity to see how their actions are removing them from life in the presence of God and making them more dead than alive, as their existence lacks the true essence of the human being’s purpose and desire.