The Lesson of Tum'a

  • Rav Yair Kahn


This week's shiur is dedicated to Rachel Royterg z"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the first of Nissan,
by her grandson Patrice Rueff.
I.  The Transition from Shemini to Tazria
The portions of Tazria and Metzora, which are read together during a normal year, form a unit, the main topic of which is tum’a (ritual impurity), and the tum’a of tzara’at in particular.  Tzara’at, often inaccurately translated as leprosy, is a certain discoloration that may affect people, garments, or buildings when it is declared impure by a kohenTazria and Metzora describe the various discolorations, the process that of declaring the tum’a, and how purification can be attained.
I would like to focus on the curious location of these Torah portions.  Parashat Shemini, which precedes Tazria, documents the events of the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, including the death of Nadav and Avihu.  The portion that follows Metzora is Acharei Mot, which deals with the Yom Kippur service in the wake of the death of Aharon’s sons:
God spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons, when they came close before God and died.  And God said to Moshe: Speak to Aharon, your brother, that he should not come at any time to the Kodesh that is inside the parokhet [partition], before the covering which is upon the Aron, so that he will not die, for I shall appear upon the covering in a cloud.  (Vayikra 16:1-3)
From these pesukim, it is clear that there is a substantive connection between the commandment concerning the service on Yom Kippur and the death of Aharon's sons.  On the simplest level, the Torah mentions the death of Aharon's sons in its introduction to the Yom Kippur service because this entire command came about as a reaction to the death of Nadav and Avihu, who came close before God, to "offer before God a strange fire, which He had not commanded." Aharon, then, is warned not to enter the Kodesh at any time, except within a cloud of incense and as part of the Yom Kippur service. 
            But if the section regarding the Yom Kippur service is indeed a response to the sin of Aharon's sons, why isn’t that parasha recorded immediately after their deaths (10:2)? Why did the Torah record Tazria and Metzora, which seem totally unrelated to the deaths of Aharon’s children, between Shemini and Acharei Mot?  
In fact, aside from tzara’at, a number of issues are discussed between the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu and the description of the Yom Kippur service, including the laws of kashrut and the ritual impurity associated with childbirth and “zivut” (bodily discharges).  Why are these matters inserted here, forming what appears to be a separation between the death of Aharon's sons and the parasha of Acharei Mot, which was transmitted in its wake?
An examination of the section that immediately follows the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu, the section of kosher and non-kosher animals, reveals that the segments that divide the account of the death of Aharon's sons from Acharei Mot, are not, in fact, very diverse.  In order to understand the nature of this section, we must contrast it with its parallel found in Sefer Devarim (chapter 14).  The latter consists of a virtually word-for-word repetition of the animals specified in Parashat Shemini.  It includes the signs of kosher animals and kosher fish, and even repeats the detailed list of kosher birds.  But then we encounter a discrepancy between the two.  Whereas the section in Sefer Devarim ends after enumerating the various kosher and non-kosher animals, the parallel section in Vayikra continues with the laws concerning the impurity of carcasses and the prohibition against eating sheratzim (creeping creatures):
From these shall you be impure; anyone who touches their carcass shall be impure until the evening, and whoever carries any part of their carcass shall wash his clothes and be impure until the evening: [the carcass of] any beast with a parted hoof but which is not cloven-hoofed and does not chew the cud – these are impure for you; anyone who touches them shall be impure… Do not make yourself abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, nor shall you make yourself impure with them, such that you will be defiled by them.  (Vayikra 11:24-43)
Thus, the comparison between these two parashiot reveals that the section devoted to forbidden foods in Sefer Vayikra is fundamentally a section dealing with the concept of impurity, and is therefore related to the other parashiot that address this subject.  Thus, we are left with only one subject wedged between the death of Aharon's sons and the Yom Kippur service – the subject of ritual impurity.  We can therefore narrow our search to a basic question: What is the transition from the death of Nadav and Avihu to the idea of ritual impurity?
II.  Peretz Uza
Before attempting to answer this question, let us examine an episode that is so similar to the death of Nadav and Avihu that is was selected by the Sages as the haftara to Parashat Shemini
We read in Sefer Shmuel II (chapter 6) that after King David decided to bring the aron to Yerushalayim, the cattle leading the wagon carrying the aron stumbled, and Uza made the mistake of putting out his hand to support the aron and prevent it from falling and was killed by Hashem.  At first glance, the tragedy of Uza's death appears to have resulted from a very specific, isolated error.  If this were the whole story, however, there would be no need for David to implement any procedural changes when attempting to bring the aron to Jerusalem a second time, other than warning the bearers of the aron not to touch it.  But as the narrative in Sefer Shmuel reveals, there were indeed significant differences between the two attempts.  When the aron was taken the first time from the house of Avinadav, we are told:
They bore it from the house of Avinadav, which was in Giv'a, with the aron of God, and Achyo went before the aron.  And David and all of Yisrael played before God on all types of [instruments made of] cypress wood, and on lyres and on lutes and timbrels and on rattles and cymbals.  (Shmuel II 6:4-5)
These verses describe an atmosphere of festivity and celebration – bordering on frivolity, as expressed in the word "played," "mesachakim;" this word is not usually used in relation to musical instruments, but rather parallels the other meaning of the English word – lightheartedness).  The second attempt to bring the aron to Yerushalayim occurred three months later, when the aron was taken from the house of Oved Edom.  There it is written:
David went and took up the aron of God from the house of Oved Edom to the city of David with joy.  And when those bearing the aron of God took six steps, he offered an ox and a fatling.  (ibid. 12-13)
Although the text again mentions joy, the atmosphere is unquestionably more cautious and serious.  After every six paces, an ox and a fatling are offered, and David and all of Yisrael are not "playing before God," but rather bringing up the Aron "with shouting and with the sound of the shofar."
We may conclude, then, that David understood that God's punishment of Uza did not result from a one-time, isolated failure – the fact that Uza made the mistake of putting forth his hand towards the aron.  David understood that there had been a broader problem with the entire atmosphere in which they had tried to move the aron.  Carried away with the festive feeling of "playing before God," they had lost sight of the command to transport the aron in a somber and cautious manner, as commanded by the Torah: "The service of the Sanctuary is upon them; they shall bear it on their shoulders" (Bamidbar 7:9). 
Indeed, in the parallel account in Divrei Ha-yamim I, we discover several details omitted from the narrative in Sefer Shmuel:
David called Tzadok and Evyatar, the kohanim, and the leviim, and Uriel, Asaya and Yoel, Shemaya and Eliel and Aminadav.  And he said to them: You are the heads of the households of the Levi’im; sanctify yourselves and your brethren that you may bring up the aron of the Lord God of Yisrael to the place which I have prepared for it.  For it was because you did not do this the first time that God burst forth among us, for we did not seek Him in proper fashion.  (Divrei Ha-yamim I 15)
Before the tragedy of Uza, there was an eruption of spiritual emotion.  After the return of the aron from the Philistines, it became possible once again to come close to God and to take shelter in the Divine Presence.  The people presumptuously imagined that man, created in the image of God and concerning whom we declare "You have made him [only] a little less than God" (Tehillim 8:6), can access the divine presence via a short and straight path.  Swept away by unbridled intoxication of religious feeling, they believed that a person who is full of love of God could cleave to the Shekhina, as it were.  They did not appreciate that "The Lord your God is a consuming fire" (Devarim 4:24), and the distance between the Creator and mortal man is infinite.  Moshe himself, who spoke with God "face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow," was told, "No man can see Me and live" (Shemot 33:20). 
This explains the teaching of Rabba:
For what reason was David punished? Because he called words of Torah “songs” (zemirot), as it is written: “Your statutes are songs for me in my dwelling.” The Holy One said to him: Words of Torah, concerning which it is written, “If you close your eyes from it, it is gone” - you call them “songs”? I shall therefore cause you to stumble regarding a matter which is known even to young children, as it is written, “To the children of Kehat He did not give [wagons], for the service of the Sanctuary [is upon them, they shall bear it on their shoulders]'' – and he [David] brought it on a wagon.  (Sota 35a)
The episode of Uza taught David that God is to be served with fear and awe; the joy experienced before Him must be accompanied by trembling.  King David learned that lesson well: "And David feared God on that day" (Shmuel II 6:9).
III.  Nadav and Avihu
The commentators present many different explanations concerning the sin of Aharon's sons, but most share a similar fundamental concept when it comes to the root of the sin: religious presumptuousness.  According to the view of Rebbi, God issued a warning, "Also the kohanim who come to approach God shall sanctify themselves, lest God break forth among them" (Shemot 19:22), specifically to prevent the ascent of Nadav and Avihu to Mount Sinai.  The Sages (Vayikra Rabba 20:10) describe Nadav and Avihu as arrogantly teaching Halakha in front of their teacher.  They were prominent members of the religious aristocracy, who at a young age were already ranked among the elders of Yisrael who merited to ascend and see, as it were, the God of Yisrael.  According to the Targum Yerushalmi, it is with reference to them that the Torah says, "They beheld God, and they ate and drank" (Shemot 24:11); in other words, as Rashi explains, "They gazed at Him with a coarse heart, while eating and drinking." In the view of Nadav and Avihu, man is worthy of the divine encounter, and out of thirst for God, they charged into the Mishkan without any prior Divine command. 
The Netziv beautifully interprets the "foreign fire" brought by Nadav and Avihu as a reference to the fire of love for God:
They entered [the Kodesh] out of a fiery enthusiasm of love of God.  The Torah says that although the love of God is precious in God's eyes, it should not be expressed in this way, which He had not commanded.  Therefore, it is said concerning them, "I shall be sanctified among those close to Me" – because they yearned to enjoy the splendor of the Divine Presence. 
In other words, they fulfilled what we are told in Sefer Tehillim (55:15): "… We walked to God's house with excitement." But they were punished because they lost sight of the warning of Kohelet (4:7): "Guard your feet when you enter the house of God."
The laws governing the manner in which one is to approach the Mikdash serve as an expression of the infinite distance separating man and his Creator.  Pure human worthiness is insufficient to behold God and serve Him.  In order to serve in the Mikdash, a Divine command is necessary to allow what is otherwise absurd.  One who wishes to approach the Mikdash must fulfill a list of conditions in order to obtain the divine license required to enter God's house, which is granted only through compliance with the laws of the Torah.  According to Chazal, Nadav and Avihu ignored these conditions (whether we adopt the view that they entered in a state of intoxication or the view that they entered without the priestly garments), and for this they were punished.
IV.  The Transition to Tazria Revisited
In light of the above, we can now reexamine the sequence of the parashiot at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra.  The sefer opens with Hashem inviting Moshe to enter the mishkan.  It continues with a discussion of the sacrifices, and of man’s ability to offer them before God.  Following the discussion of the sacrifices, the Torah describes the seven days of inauguration, culminating with the divine encounter of the eighth day.  Thus, from the beginning of the sefer up until the revelation of the Shekhina on the eighth day, the Torah addresses only one aspect of religious experience – the possibility of a man-God encounter.  At the very moment of climax, when fire emerges from before God and consumes whatever is upon the altar before the eyes of the nation, there is an abrupt disruption: Aharon's sons enter the Kodesh with no Divine command, and they are immediately consumed.  In the blink of an eye, everything changes.  It becomes clear that there are laws and conditions describing the possibility of human service in the Mikdash; Am Yisrael learn that Man’s encounter with the divine cannot be taken for granted.
In this context, the parashiot relating to the various types of ritual impurity emphasize the other aspect of religious experience and teach us about the infinite abyss that separates man and Hashem.  Impurity is an inseparable part of a human’s reality.  It accompanies his birth, as well as his death; it is bound up with his eating and his marital relations.  Mortal man, mired in impurity, cannot come before God without the laws of purification that God Himself commands.  Without fulfillment of the purifying Divine command, mortals cannot approach the King: "You shall separate Bnei Yisrael from their impurity, that they shall not die in their impurity, when they defile My dwelling that is among them" (Vayikra 15:31).
The Tazria-Metzora unit is followed by Acharei Mot, which describes the conditions that grant Aharon the license to enter Hashem’s presence.  The entrance of Aharon is contrasted to that of Nadav and Avihu.  Aharon enters as an act of submission, conforming to every detail of the divine command.  The Yom Kippur service does not describe the divine encounter as an opportunity available to man, but rather as a result of Hashem’s grace, which erases the infinite gap separating God and man.
The ideal of an earthly Mikdash ministered by finite man seems absurd, but it is nevertheless the will of Hashem; only by virtue of His will does it becomes a reality.  In order to achieve this ideal, it is incumbent upon man to attempt to transcend the limits of the human condition by purifying himself from the tum’a that is reflective of that condition.  Even so, if it is the will of Hashem that man minister in an earthly Mikdash, this Mikdash will inevitably contain tum’a as well.  Therefore, aside from atonement for the transgressions of Yisrael, the Yom Kippur service is also a means to atone for Yisrael’s tum’a:
And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the tum’a of Bnei Yisrael and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwells amongst them in the midst of their tum’a.  (16:16)