We have come to the section of the Torah that focuses on tum’ah; that which requires one to distance oneself from holy space, objects, and acts. While the word “tum’ah” is generally translated as “impure,” its true meaning can be gleaned from the ways that it is used by the Torah. First, in this week’s double parashah, Tazria-Metzora, we see that a woman incurs tum’ah through childbirth. First, she becomes tme’ah to her husband, and he is forbidden to have sexual relations with her for a period of time. All bleeding and bodily discharges related to human reproductive physiology causes this particular kind of tum’ah. After this passes, she remains in a state of tum’ah in relation to the Temple/Mishkan. She is required to wait a prescribed period of time, then offer sacrifices as part of a process of shedding that tum’ah. 

The rest of Tazria-Metzora deals with the skin disease tzara’at. Anyone with tzara’at must be quarantined until a priest deems them fit to rejoin society. Afterwards, like the new mother, the metzora, the person who was afflicted with tzara’at, must offer sacrifices as part of their process of becoming tahor; free of tum’ah.

 Neither skin disease, childbirth, nor a normal female or male reproductive cycle are sins or moral wrongs. While there is a tradition that teaches us that tzara’at  is a punishment for speaking ill of others, it is not the only way to contract that disease. All physiological functions, whether healthy or pathological, are morally neutral, and perfectly natural. Tum’ah is not to be equated with sin or with moral shortcoming.

However, we do see, when the Torah describe the rituals of Yom Kippur, that the people Israel are to be cleansed of their tum’ah:

For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Eternal (Vayikra 16:30)

Sin, illness, contact with corpses and carcasses, healthy reproductive physiology, eating non-kosher animals, birth and death, all produce tum’ah. They all function to distance Jews from close contact of some kind. The tum’ah of nidah physically distances husbands from wives. The tum’ah of tzara’at distances the metzora from the rest of their community. Every other kind of tum’ah distances one from ritual intimacy with God. 

If tum’ah is not “impurity” or taint, but that which prevents intimacy, then holiness is intimacy. Bringing a sacrifice to God is to bring a korban– that which “brings one close (in Hebrew, karov)” to God. The Holy of Holies is the place where the High Priest comes closest to God. Only if that priest is free of all tum’ah may he enter safely. A Jewish wedding is called kiddushin, sanctification; the bride is “sanctified/set aside” for exclusive intimacy with the groom. 

In this light, we can see that the concept that Israel is a “holy nation” means that the Jewish people meant to achieve intimacy with God. That is the mission that the Torah gives us. Our mission goes beyond being moral, and demands that we seek holiness; that we seek intimacy with the core of all that is in all of our actions. We cannot, of course, be holy if we are not moral. When we achieve holiness, we are inspired to a morality that is driven by the deepest care and the fullest investment of self. We are also, in the process of seeking holiness, made aware of what relationships we truly have with each person in our lives and with the world that we are part of. 

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