Skip to main content

On Sin and Redemption

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion






Translated by David Strauss





            The haftara of Parashat Para (Yechezkel 36:16-38) opens with a description of the serious transgressions of Israel:


Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their way and by their doings: their way was before Me as the uncleanness of a menstruous woman.  So I poured My fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it.  (vv. 17-18)


            The prophet describes two types of sin that are likened to two kinds of uncleanness, that of a menstruous woman and that of a corpse.  These two types of uncleanness differ one from the other.  The uncleanness of a menstruous woman comes in fixed cycles, whereas the uncleanness of a corpse is a deviation from the ordinary course of life.




            Chazal find consolation in the fact that the sins of Israel are likened to a menstruous woman, who, by the very nature of her uncleanness, is routinely restored to her state of cleanness, and even while she is unclean, remains connected to her husband:


"Their way was before Me as the uncleanness of a menstruous woman" (Yechezkel 36:17) – just as a menstruous woman becomes defiled and [later] purified, so too the Holy One, blessed be He, will purify Israel, as it is stated: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you" (ibid. v. 25).

Another explanation: "As the uncleanness of a menstruous woman" – and not as the uncleanness of a corpse.  Just as [when there is a corpse] in the house, the High Priest may not enter therein, but with a menstruous woman, he may enter the house, and sit with her on a couch, provided that it does not rock – so too had Israel been likened to the uncleanness of a corpse, you would say that the Shekhina will never return to them.  But [since Israel was likened to] a menstruous woman, just as a priest may remain with her in the house, without concern, so too the Shekhina rests upon Israel, even when they are unclean.  As it is stated: "That remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness" (Vayikra 16:16).[1]


            Furthermore, the sins that are likened to a menstruous woman are not so severe, for they are sins that are implanted in man's soul and are part of human nature.  Such transgressions are not severe enough to be regarded as a corruption of the soul that totally veers from human nature.  Sin that is likened to a menstruous woman testifies to human weakness rather than moral corruption.


            On the other hand, the cyclical nature of the uncleanness of the menstruous woman which diminishes its gravity also aggravates it.  It is not a one-time uncleanness that disappears over the horizon after the woman purifies herself, but rather uncleanness that is built in to the female body, and reappears periodically.  Just as it is clear to us that the woman will return to her clean state, so too is it clear to us that she will once again become unclean.  This seems to be the reason that Scripture refers to the uncleanness of a menstruous woman as a "way," for we are dealing with sins that have become a fixed way and are no longer accidental.  The use of the expression "way" is also not by chance and the prophet repeats it several times in order to establish this point.  The fact that these sins are implanted in man's soul indicates not only that they are less severe, but also that they are likely to recur.  A person cannot overcome them and make them disappear, but rather they remain as part of his fixed conduct.  The hope that the people of Israel will internalize God's will and change their nature by making their own will correspond to His will fails to be realized.


            The prophet rebukes the people precisely for the fact that sin has become second nature to them and that they are incapable of breaking out of the periodicity of the expected sin.




            Yechezkel's second reproach likens Israel's sins to the uncleanness of a corpse.  While it is true that the uncleanness of a corpse is accidental,[2] rather than expected or built in to nature, it is, however, more severe than other types of uncleanness, for it testifies to the total failure of nature and matter to maintain themselves, and to the cessation of man's capability of breaking out of his world.  It therefore requires stronger atonement, namely, the atonement of the red heifer.  This is not the place to go into a detailed analysis of the idea of the purification process connected to the red heifer.[3] For our present purposes we can say that it differs in its very essence from the purification process of a menstruous woman.  A menstruous woman immerses in a mikve filled with water in its natural state and in abundance.  A reservoir of rain water or a natural spring can be arranged in most places.  In contrast the "waters of sprinkling" (mei chatat) that purify a person from the uncleanness of a corpse are extremely rare and precious, and not available in all places and at all times.  More importantly, they do not achieve cleanness through a restoration of the natural state, for the uncleanness that they wish to remove does not reflect a deficiency within the framework of nature, but rather a failure of the natural world in its entirety.  This requires a purification process that breaches the boundaries of nature and repairs it by connecting to elements found beyond it.  Since we are dealing with a corruption of the entire natural system, it is necessary to destroy a natural object and rebuild it.


            The same applies to sins that are likened to the uncleanness of a corpse.  The prophet relates to such sins with extreme harshness, saying: "So I poured My fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it" (v. 18).  We are not dealing here with an ordinary sin, but with a sin that testifies to moral or religious corruption, and with a person who veers from ordinary disobedience.




            With his metaphoric comparison between sin and uncleanness, Yechezkel draws a comparison between bloodshed and the uncleanness of a corpse.  The connection is based not only on the common denominator of death, but on the fact that murder is the crime that deviates most from the human norm and from the feelings of mercy and compassion implanted within man.  The sin of idolatry might be more severe, but murder testifies to extreme moral corruption.  The Rambam's famous words in Hilkhot Rotze'ach (4:9) give fine expression to this idea:


For although there are worse crimes than bloodshed, none causes the destruction of civilized society as bloodshed.  Not even idolatry, nor immorality, nor desecration of the Sabbath, is the equal of bloodshed.  For these are crimes between man and God, while bloodshed is a crime between man and man.  If one has committed a crime, he is deemed wholly wicked, and all the meritorious acts he has performed during his lifetime cannot outweigh this crime or save him from judgment…




            It is interesting to note that Chazal likened idolatry to the uncleanness of a menstruous woman, and not to the uncleanness of a corpse, and decreed that idols are unclean like a menstruous woman, as is stated in the Mishna in Shabbat (9:1):


Rabbi Akiva said: Whence do we know that an idol defiles by carriage (masa) like a menstruous woman? Because it is said: "You shall cast them away [= the idols] as a menstruous thing; you shall say unto it, Get you hence" (Yeshayahu 30:22).  Just as a menstruous woman defiles by carriage, so does an idol defile by carriage.


            In the context of our discussion, we must assume that the religious drive implanted in the human soul is liable to lead him to the perversion of idolatry, time after time, as indeed is documented by the prophets.  This, however, falls into the category of the uncleanness of a menstruous woman – a natural phenomenon that doesn't breach the limits of nature, but is severe owing to its periodicity and constancy.  The idolatry mentioned in the verse together with bloodshed is not "ordinary" idolatry, but more severe, stemming not from man's normal religious drive, but from other sources.




            Fundamentally, there is no way to purify oneself of the uncleanness of a corpse, for nature indeed failed.  The encounter with death reveals the cessation of matter, and there is no response to this, for indeed matter was routed by death, and there is no remedy.  Unlike the periodicity of the uncleanness of a menstruous woman, which repairs itself once again every month, death cannot be repaired on the natural plane, and the key to resurrection is not found in the natural world.


            This, however, is the great mystery of the red heifer, namely, that despite the fact that there does not appear to be any repair or remedy, the encounter with God by way of the red heifer and the Temple is capable of repairing the failure.  The same applies to these sins.  While it seems that they are not subject to repair, and that repentance on the natural plane cannot repair and achieve atonement for them, the mystery of repentance that involves God's purifying man is capable of removing the sin.


            The connection between the haftara and the parasha becomes evident from the words of Yechezkel which reveal the mystery of repentance that involves purification from above:


Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.  (Yechezkel 36:25-26)



[1] Yalkut Shimoni (ad loc.). See also Shabbat 64b: "'And she that is sick shall be in her impurity.' The early Sages ruled: This means that she must not rouge nor paint nor adorn herself in dyed garments; until Rabbi Akiba came and taught: If so, you make her repulsive to her husband, with the result that he will divorce her! But what [then] is taught by: 'And she that is sick shall be in her impurity'? She shall remain in her impurity until she enters into water."

[2] Let us also remember the wording of the verse regarding the Nazirite: "And if any man die very suddenly by him, and he has defiled the head of his consecration…" (Bamidbar 6:9).

[3] I have related to this in the past in several articles published in Daf Kesher le-Talmidei Yeshivat Har Etzion.  See "Bi-Kedusha u-ve-Tahara," Daf Kesher 432 (5754); "Ba-Shamayim mi-Ma'al ve-al ha-Aretz mi-Tachat," Daf Kesher 487 (5755); "Zahav va-EiferBein Mishkan ve-ha-Egel le-Para Aduma," Daf Kesher 593 (5757).

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!