In this week’s Torah reading, there are extensive instructions about the behavior of the Cohanim (priests), one of which dictates that a Cohen may not be in direct contact with a dead body or he becomes ‘tamei’. Tamei is ordinarily translated as impure or defiled, but as we shall see in our study this week, there’s a much deeper meaning.
A couple of years ago, the biblical scholar James Kugel published a book, In the Valley of the Shadow, about his experience with cancer. Told by the doctors that, in all probability, he had no more than two years of life left (thankfully, he was in fact cured), he describes the experience of suddenly realizing the imminence of death. He says, “the background music stopped.” By “background music” he meant the sense of being part of the flow of life. We all know we will one day die, but for the most part we feel part of life and of time that will go on for ever. The consciousness of death removes us from this feeling and awakens our own vulnerability.
Kugel also writes, “Most people, when they see someone ravaged by chemotherapy, just tend to keep their distance.” He quotes Psalm 38:12, “My friends and companions stand back at the sight of my affliction; even those closest to me keep their distance.” Although the physical reactions to chemotherapy are quite different from a skin disease or a bodily abnormality, they tend to generate the same feeling in others, part of which has to do with the thought “This could happen to me.”
This is the logic of what is discussed in this week’s parsha as Tamei. It has nothing to do with rationality and everything to do with emotion. Tamei, as noted earlier, does not mean defilement. It means that which distracts from eternity and infinity by making us forcibly aware of mortality, of the fact that we are physical beings in a physical world.
It was not rare in the ancient world, nor is it rare in some religions today, to believe that here on earth everything is mortal. Only in Heaven or the afterlife will we encounter immortality. In Judaism, holiness exists within this world, despite the fact that it is bounded by space and time. But holiness must be carefully protected and that is the rationale behind the laws of Shabbat, the Temple and the laws of its priesthood.
The “holy” is where heaven and earth meet; where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open ourselves up to the sensed presence of God. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The “holy” is the space within which redeems our daily living from mere routine and makes us know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” of God. (Deut. 33: 27)
It is particularly poignant for us that this Torah portion falls on this Shabbat as we have just been face to face with these realities due to the death of a family member just over a week ago. The Shiva (7 day mourning period) has just ended and throughout the period, the reality of our own fragile existence was made all the more real as family and friends alike gathered in shock at the sudden loss of a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a friend. More than one visitor to the Shiva commented on how Helen’s sudden passing stopped them in their tracks as they realized how unimportant our petty annoyances truly are in light of Olam Haba (the World to Come).
In Tune with Torah this week = though we don’t like to think about it, it behooves us periodically to do an inventory of our life, our attitudes, our concerns and measure them against the frailty of life itself. This practice is a great help to us in realigning our priorities, putting aside selfish irritations and embracing once again, a giving spirit, a compassionate heart, a listening ear and a gentle posture towards our loved ones. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one. Today – let us choose to live each day as a gift, for each day truly is just that.