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Audio: Is Being Tamei a Sin? Torah Tidbits Audio for Parsha Chukat

Is Being Tamei a Sin? Torah Tidbits Audio for Parsha Chukat.
6/27/2014, 1:17 PM

A7 Radio's "Torah Tidbits Audio" with Phil Chernofsky
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But being Tamei is not a sin!

Yes, the mitzva of Para Aduma is considered to be the quintessential CHOK. An enigmatic mitzva that 'resists' logic and simple understanding. Yes, notwithstanding the above, commentaries offer symbolisms and significance to many aspects of the Para Aduma. The best-known 'explanation' for Para Aduma is that it is a KAPARA (atonement) for the sin of the golden calf. Mother cow symbolically cleans up the mess caused by her son, the calf. Nice. It works on many levels. But there is one difficulty with calling the Para Aduma an atonement for anything. Because the use of the Potion prepared with the ashes of the Para Aduma is used to purify (L'TAHEIR) a person who is TAMEI from contact with a dead body. And that's not a sin! In fact, taking care of the burial of a fellow Jew is a mitzva. It is a Chesed.

Even more, it is CHESED SHEL EMET, the highest act of kindness one can do for the other. Becoming Tamei is an unavoidable result of tending to someone's burial. So what's the connection between TUM'A and TAHARA on the one hand, to Sin on the other, that makes the Para Aduma a Kapara? A dead body is halachically AVI AVOT HATUM'A - the ultimate source of ritual impurity. Why is that so? The body is the receptacle of the soul. During a person's lifetime, body and soul are partnered to become the person. When the soul leaves the body, that which is left - the body - is now like an empty container or the peel of an orange, or the shell of an egg. When the contents of the container is removed, the container is simply discarded. The same for the orange peel and the same for the eggshell. The receptacle has served its purpose and is simply disposed of. The receptacle is not negative - it is just zero. With its contents it was something positive. Now it has served its purpose and that's it. And that might have been the whole story of the human body. During its lifetime, it was together with its soul. After death, the body might have been simply zero, something to discard - respectfully, for sure, but not necessarily with the taint of TUM'A. Except for one thing - SIN! Every time a person sins, it is his body that is at crossed purposes with his soul.

The body sullies the soul by sinning. The body-soul combination that is a person, a Jew, is charged with living a life of Torah and mitzvot. A life of striving for higher and higher levels of Kedusha. That's what we are supposed to do. The body is supposed to help the soul, so to speak, with its mission in life. But sin holds back the soul. Sin damages the soul entrusted to the person by G-d. And therefore, when the soul leaves the body, it has the halachic status of TUM'A, and transmits that TUM'A to anyone who touches it, or even is under the same roof with it. Sin caused that status of the dead body. The body of a sinner (everyone - EIN TZADIK ASHER LO YECHETA, there is no one who is free of sin) continues to pull others away from the kedusha they strive for. A person who becomes TAMEI cannot enter the Mikdash. Cannot partake of sacred foods. To do so intentionally is a capital offense. Being TAMEI per se is not sinful, but it doesn't mix with kedusha in the strongest way. Being Tamei is not a sin, but being TAMEI is a result of sin. Being Tamei is caused by sin. And therefore, that which G-d commanded us to do in order to rid ourselves of the Tum'ah is an atonement for sin. Specifically, for the sin of the golden calf. But on some level, perhaps, it is an atonement for the concept of sin. This has been an attempt to answer the original question posed in the title of this Lead Tidbit. It is meant as food for thought. It is, by and large, speculation. It is also a work in progress. Comments from TTreaders will be most welcome. On another aspect of CHOK... Para Aduma carries the reputation of being the highest example of a CHOK. After all, the Torah introduces the mitzva with the statement - ZOT CHUKAT HA- TORAH.

THIS is the CHOK of the Torah. That statement makes Para Aduma a 'tough act to follow'. But there is one other occurrence of the phrase ZOT CHUKAT HA- TORAH in the Torah. It's coming up in a short number of weeks from now, in Parshat Matot. The phrase introduces the procedure of Kashering vessels - specifically, ones taken as spoils of war. If we read the p'sukim about this procedure, we find that things are pretty logical. They make sense. They are relatively easy to understand. And yet that topic to is CHUKAT HATORAH. So what's the story? Perhaps, we can suggest that Para Aduma is not THE CHOK of the Torah, but the classic example of CHOK. Perhaps, we can say that EVERY mitzva is a CHOK or has an element of CHOK within it. Yes, there are some mitzvot that we seem to 'explain' with ease. LO TACHSOM SHOR B'DISHO - Do not muzzle an ox when it is threshing. We are taught that it would be cruel to do so, to deprive an animal of food when it gets the munchies. And, in fact, the mitzva applies to other animals and other tasks.

And the mitzva forms the basis of the concept of kindness to animals. But is that the whole story? If so, why didn't the Torah give us an explanation for this mitzva? It told us why we should dwell in a Sukka for seven days. But it gave us no reason for LO TACHSOM. And for most other mitzvot. We can 'get a handle' on many mitzvot, but we don't know all. ZOT CHUKAT HATORAH teaches us about all mitzvot.

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Phil Chernofsky is the educational director of the Orthodox Union's OU Israel Center in Jerusalem and editor of the Torah Tidbits parsha pamphlet. Since 1998, he has hosted Torah Tidbits Audio, a shiur on the weekly parsha with witty insights. It airs every Thursday from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Israel time and is downloadable as a podcast on Israel National Radio. Phil made Aliyah to Israel over 30 years ago. He is the author of the newly released book And Every Single One Was Someone, a tribute to victims of the Holocaust.
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