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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria-Metzora: Purification powers of the mikvah
In Parshios Tazria, Metzora, Shemini and Chukas we read about the various laws of impurity. Every person who has become impure must immerse in the water of a mikvah pool. "The immersion to purify oneself from the impurity is in itself one of the chookim". The human mind is never capable to fully grasp the Creator's intentions and rationale for each of the commandments. Despite our shortcomings, we are permitted, even obligated, to try and understand every commandment that G'd has given us to the best of our ability. Just as the immersion in a mikvah facilitates a "recreation" and new start of the body, so shall the person make a fresh start and improve his deeds and ways of conduct. In many communities, men immerse themselves in a mikvah on the eve of Shabbos and Yom Tov before entering the holiness of these days. The need for women to purify after having a discharge of blood is the result of the sin of Eve. The Temple was in a sense a replica of the Garden of Eden, and as such there was no room for anything impure on the Temple grounds. Every woman who immerses herself in the waters of a mikvah has a part in achieving atonement for the sin of the first woman in the world. Whenever a person enters into the waters of a mikvah, this person re-establishes a link with man's original state in the Garden of Eden prior to the sin.
Different kinds of impurity
The two parshios that we read this week, Tazria and Metzora, primarily deal with the laws of tzaraas. Tzaraas is a spiritual malady that could appear on a person's body, garments, or house. However, at the beginning of Parashas Tazria (Vayikra 12:1-8), and towards the end of Parashas Metzora (Vayikra 15:1-33), the Torah instructs us regarding the laws of impurity as a result of childbirth or caused by a discharge by either a man or a woman. At the end of last week's Parashas Shemini (Vayikra 11:46), the Torah taught the laws of impurity when one touches a dead animal. And at the beginning of Parashas Chukas (Bamidbar 19:11-16), we read about the various laws of impurity caused by the death of a human being.
There are many detailed laws concerning how to purify oneself from any of these impurities. However, we find one common denominator that is part of every process of purification. Every person who has become impure must immerse in the water of a mikvah pool.
The Rambam (The Laws of Mikvah 11:12) writes: "It is clear and obvious that the laws of purity and impurity are Divine decrees. They are not concepts that human logic can comprehend, as they belong to the category of commandments known as chookim, G'd's decrees for which He has given no reason. Likewise, the immersion to purify oneself from the impurity is in itself one of the chookim, for the impurity is not physical like dirt that could be cleaned by water."
Never fully grasp chookim
Already the Midrash Rabbah (Chukas 19:8) teaches this and says: "The dead person does not contaminate, and the water does not purify. But G'd says, 'I have made a decree and given My instruction.'" When our sages teach that the chookim are beyond human comprehension, they mean to warn us that our observance of the Torah law may never depend on our personal understanding. Even in regard to the Torah commandments that seem logical to us, we must always remember that the human mind, however smart it is, is never capable to fully grasp the Creator's intentions and rationale for each of the commandments.
Despite our shortcomings, we are permitted, even obligated, to try and understand every commandment that G'd has given us to the best of our ability (see Rambam, Laws of Me'ilah 8:8). On a simple level, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvos 173 and 175) explains that on the first day of Creation, the whole earth was immersed in water, as it says (Bereishis 1:2): "And the spirit of G'd hovered over the water." Only on the third day did the dry land appear. In the same way, one should consider oneself as if created anew after immersing in the "natural" waters of a mikvah.
Higher state of holiness
The Kabbalists delve further into the mystery of the purification obtained by the immersion into the water of a mikvah. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that we find the use of a mikvah not only as a medium for purification, but also as a way to elevate oneself to a higher state of holiness. When a gentile undergoes conversion to Judaism it includes an immersion in a mikvah. The Talmud (Yevamos 22a) teaches that after the conversion, the convert is like a new-born child. This teaches us that the immersion in the mikvah brings about a total change in the person's status, and gives the person an opportunity to make a new start without being burdened with his past.
In a similar way, when Aaron and his children were consecrated as Kohanim, the Torah relates that G'd instructed Moses and said (Shemos 29:4): "And you shall immerse them in water" (see Rashi ibid). Here we again see that their change of status required that they immersed themselves in the waters of a mikvah. We find a third example in the beginning of next week's Parasha where the Torah teaches the laws of the Temple service on Yom Kippur. This service included that the Kohein Gadol had to enter the Holy of Holies twice. Prior to entering this most holy place, and after exiting from there, the High Priest was obligated to immerse himself in a mikvah. These examples teach us that when a person wants to elevate himself he can use the tool of a mikvah to assist him in his spiritual growth. As the Sefer HaChinuch continues to explain that just as the immersion in a mikvah facilitates a "recreation" and new start of the body, so shall the person who immerses himself make a fresh start and improve his deeds and ways of conduct.
Shabbos and Yom Tov
This explains the custom in many communities where the men immerse themselves in a mikvah on the eve of Shabbos and Yom Tov before they enter the holiness of these days. Although nowadays we do not have the Temple as a holy place to enter, we still have the opportunity to enter the holiness of time every Shabbos. Some people even have the custom to immerse themselves in a mikvah every morning before serving G'd in their mundane pursuits of everyday life.
In the beginning of the first of this week's two parshios, Parashas Tazria, the Torah instructs that after childbirth, in addition to her immersion in a mikvah, at the time of the Temple the mother was obligated to bring an offering,. In this connection it says (Vayikra 12:7): "And she becomes purified from the source of her blood." The Kli Yakar interprets the expression "the source of her blood" as a reference to the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and gave Adam to eat as well, G'd punished her and said (Bereishis 3:16): "I will definitely increase your pain and [the discomfort of] your pregnancy. In pain you shall give birth to children." The Torah uses a double expression in connection with the increase of Eve's pain. The Talmud (Eruvin 100b) explains that this double expression refers to the pain incurred by all women at the time of the menstrual cycle and when the hymen is broken. For if not for the sin of Eve, no woman would experience any pain at these occurrences (see also Jerusalem Talmud Shabbos 2:6). From this we learn, says the Kli Yakar, that the women's obligation to purify themselves after having a discharge of blood is due to the sin of Eve.
Return to purity
The Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 20) relates that when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, they were evicted from the site of the Temple. It further relates that Adam entered the waters of the River Gichon (see Bereishis 2:13), as an expression of repentance from his sin. Ever since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden it has been the desire and attempt of Adam and his descendants to atone for this great sin and to return to the state of purity in which man was originally created. At the time of the Temple, the objective to purify oneself in the waters of a mikvah was, in most cases, to be able to enter the Temple area and partake of the holy food from the offerings, both of which were prohibited if one were in a state of impurity. This becomes very understandable with an insight mentioned in the Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 13:2). The Midrash explains that the Temple was in a sense a replica of the Garden of Eden, totally devoted to the service of G'd, and as such there was no room for anything impure on the Temple grounds.
Nowadays, we do not have the ability to purify ourselves with all the detailed laws of purification. This is why it is prohibited for anyone to enter the holy grounds of the Temple mount. However, even during our exile the Jewish people still retain a miniature temple, wherever they reside, with its special laws of purity. The Talmud (Sotah 17a) teaches that every Jewish home has the potential of being a miniature sanctuary that can merit some level of Divine presence. The laws of family purity entrusted to husband and wife to conduct themselves with holiness and purity is instrumental in elevating their home to a sanctuary. And every woman who immerses herself in the waters of a mikvah has a part in achieving atonement for the sin of the first woman in the world. By purifying herself and elevating her marital life to a high level of holiness, she diminishes the spirit of impurity brought into the world by Eve.
The Halacha requires the water of the mikvah to be connected to a pool of "natural water", such as rain water or spring water, coming directly from its source, without passing through anything that could defile it. The Talmud (Berachos 55a) teaches that all water ultimately has its source in the rivers emanating from the Garden of Eden. As such, says Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, whenever a person enters into the waters of a mikvah, this person re-establishes a link with man's original state in the Garden of Eden prior to the sin. Whenever this takes place, the one immersing in the mikvah shows a longing to return to this perfect state and helps the world come a step closer to the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Isaiah (51:3): "For G'd comforts Zion … and He will make her wilderness like Eden." At that time the world will come full circle as the prophet says (ibid 11:9): "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of G'd just like the waters cover the sea."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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