April 14, 2024
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Shabbat Parah
Parshat Tzav

The primary theme of the special haftarah we read for this Shabbat Parah is that of Hashem’s promise of the future purification of Israel from her sins, as prophesied by Yechezkel HaNavi in the 36th perek of his sefer. This haftarah mirrors the topic of the special maftir reading (read annually on the Shabbat preceding Shabbat HaChodesh), that details the purification ritual that would be performed to remove one from the state of ritual contamination (“tumah”).

When commenting on the haftarah last year, we noted that its initial section decried the sinfulness of the nation. This, we felt, was a particularly difficult introduction to a reading that was meant to prepare us for the arrival of the joyous “zman cheirutenu—a celebration of our freedom.” I shared with you the view of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch who explained that this “troubling” opening to the navi’s message was meant to fill the people with hope. This prelude to Hashem’s promise to purify the sinful nation was a message to Israel and meant to teach the exiled nation that it is possible for them to reach the very heights of purity from the deepest depths of moral defilement—described in these opening pesukim.

HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein also directs our attention to this section, quoting the Yalkut Shimoni (a compilation of older interpretations and explanations on the Tanach, dating from the 13th-14th centuries CE—the precise date is not known) that emphasizes the prophet’s description of the nation’s defilement as that of a niddah (menstruant). The Yalkut states: “Just as a niddah becomes (ritually) impure but is (regularly) purified, so too, Hashem will purify Israel. Additionally, unlike one who is defiled by contact with the dead whose house may not be entered by a Kohen, (even) the Kohen Gadol may enter the house with his niddah (wife) and sit with her on the same (solid) bench … Similarly, were Israel’s defilement compared to tumat met (contact with a corpse) one might believe that God’s Shechina (divine presence) could never return to Israel. But just as the Kohen and his wife, God remains with Israel—even during their times of impurity.”

Rav Lichtenstein expands upon this approach by including yet another difference between these two sources of impurity. The niddah defilement imposed by the Torah is a result of a natural human condition, not one brought through conscious choice nor a purposeful decision. It is part of life’s realities. Tumat met—although a result of the reality of a mortal life—is a condition that can, indeed, be brought upon the individual through conscious choice or purposeful decision. And the conscious act of causing the cessation of life is far from a natural deed. It is, perhaps, the most unnatural of all human acts.

It is for this reason—Rav Lichtenstein argues—that Yechezkel depicts the nation’s defilement as one of “tumat niddah,” an impurity that results from sins that reflect the human state. Such actions mirror the weaknesses of mankind: their foibles, their shortcomings and their “humanness.” Ultimately, therefore, they can be purified, for such sins are forgivable.

But those who purposely commit sins that are beyond the usual human “temptations,” acts that Hashem considers to be unnatural and, indeed, inhuman, are considered to be defiled with tumat hamet. Such sinners would require far more acts of remorse and atonement to remove the impurity. As opposed to the sins that are committed through the inherent shortcomings of the human condition, these extreme actions reflect a corruption in the basic character of the sinner—a debilitating condition that requires a complete transformation of one’s value system.

Looking at society’s changing moral compass, I wonder if there still is any differentiation made between the two “defilements.” Given the acts we have seen too often, I am forced to ask: Is any immoral act too immoral? Is there any moral outrage that is too outrageous? Has our society accepted all human acts—whether murdering children or slaughtering innocents—as part of an “understandable” human “foible?”

Morality takes on different definitions in different times and places. Right and wrong—tumat niddah and tumat met—seem to change with the prevailing winds. That is why we must have an eternal moral system. And that is why we are blessed with the Torah!


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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