Internalizing a Torah Ideal

The centrality of self-control is evident in the admonition offered concerning the Divine presence.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The fifteenth chapter of the book of Vayikra deals primarily with laws of ritual purity. Looking at the latter part of the chapter, we see focus on the area of niddah, concerning “purity/uncleanness”, or tahara and tuma, as they apply to women. At the end of this section, the Torah presents what would appear to be a strict warning (Vayikra 15:31):

“And you shall separate (vehezartem) the children of Israel from their uncleanness, so that they will not die on account of their uncleanness, if they defile My Sanctuary (mishkani) which is in their midst”

The term “vehezartem” sounds very much like a warning (azhara), and some of the commentaries note the similarity. Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand the meaning to be one of separation, similarly found with the nazir, the individual who takes a vow to abstain from wine (among other things). Therefore, the verse is warning the Jewish people to ensure they remain separate from the state of tuma.

The Sages, as quoted in the Talmud, carved out a specific prohibition regarding this verse. The above chapter is clear about the prohibition concerning a husband and wife having relations when she is in a state of tuma. Engaging in such actions are a heinous sin. Due to the above additional warning, the Sages derived a prohibition for a husband and wife to have relations prior to the onset of her becoming a niddah. Of course, on a practical level, this makes perfect sense. The mandate of the Sages concerns protecting the Torah law, and there is no reason to “take a chance” and end up with both husband and wife violating a severe Torah prohibition. There is a philosophical aspect to the Rabbinical decree here as well. The Torah Temimah notes the use of the term as it relates to the nazir, who abstains from that which is 100% permitted to him. Before he took upon himself the status of a nazir, he could enjoy wine; now, the wine is forbidden. In a similar fashion, there is some benefit for the husband and wife to abstain from relations, even though technically it is permitted. The Sages see some ideological benefit to the prohibition, beyond the “mere” technical aspect. What exactly is this benefit?

There is another part of the above verse that seems odd. The literal understanding of the term “mishkani” would be “My Sanctuary”, ostensibly referring to the Tabernacle/Temple. However, this is a difficult interpretation, as the violation of the prohibition does not seem to be tied to the Tabernacle/Temple (unlike, say, an error in the sacrificial process). Many commentators therefore understand the term “mishkani” as a more general expression of the Divine presence. The Torah Temimah cites another idea of the Sages found in the Talmud, where the Divine presence is located between a man and his wife. He thus deduces that the issue of violating the laws of tuma would be a desecration of that presence. Others, such as Rav Hirsch, reframe the problem in the context of the nation as a whole. When the Jewish people disregard the laws of tuma, it has a detrimental effect on the status of the Divine presence among the people.

One of the bedrocks of Jewish law is the concept of control over our instinctual needs and desires. Humans are created with an abundance of these needs, manifested in areas such as food and sexuality. These forces are quite powerful, pulling us in a direction more in line with a carefree hedonism. Of course this does not mean, by definition, that someone who rejects the Torah approach becomes a hedonist. Nor does it mean the Torah seeks out a system of repression and ascetism; contrary to some, we should enjoy the world around us. Rather, the Torah provides guidelines to help balance the gratification of these desires with a focus on control over them. Ultimately, such an approach helps guide man to separate himself from the surrounding animal world. Such a focus ensures our minds are freed up to engage in the study of God and the Torah. Understanding this vehicle to perfection is a fundamental aspect in our advancement as humans.

When we turn to the laws of family purity, we see that violation of these laws leads to extremely harsh consequences. There is a powerful deterrent in place, a natural obstacle to the individual’s choice in adherence. As well, the idea of the authority of the Torah being the source of the prohibition lends another significant aspect to the decision to adhere. We cannot violate because we are subservient to God’s will. The actions are forbidden, and therefore there is nothing more to speak about. This is the very point the Sages are focusing on with their additional commandment. It is critical we can concentrate primarily on the objective of this entire system of prohibitions. The idea of self-control in the context of balance should be apparent in our thinking, a “pure” form where no Torah deterrent exists. The individuals act in a manner to separate themselves, to express an act of self-control, to bring to mind the very objective of this entire system of commandments. The Sages maintained that while one can experience this reality during the time when relations are forbidden, a preparatory moment where this idea is crystallized would be extremely beneficial.

The centrality of self-control is evident in the admonition offered concerning the Divine presence. There is a twofold objective in any relationship between husband and wife. On a halachic level, there is the goal of fulfilling the commandment of procreation. The other objective concerns the two working together to improve each other. Both husband and wife join to create a foundation of Torah, relying on each other to constantly progress. The success of the relationship can be seen in the greater ideological growth and perfection of traits. The idea of the Divine presence refers to the attachment of the couple to the path laid out by God. According to the Torah Temimah, rejecting this path, expressed through the violation of the commandments of tuma, would upend the core values of the relationship. The other opinions emphasize the individual and his relationship to the nation as a whole. The violation of these commandments is an outright rebuff of one of the defining features of being a Jew. To abandon the idea of self-control, indulging in one’s instincts, undermines the very basic identity of the Jew. This is the reference to the Divine presence being defiled, where the core relationship between the nation and God is threatened.

What we can glean from the above verse is a window into one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism. The concept of creating an ideal balance between humanity and the physical world is a constant theme in Jewish law and philosophy. We can enjoy that which we are surrounded by, but must engage everything with our minds. Ensuring we exhibit control leads to us using the world around us a vehicle to growth. The area of family purity exemplifies this objective, spelled out in the additional warning, and subsequent opportunity, found in the above verse.