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Tazria Metzora 2018

Last Shabbat we read the following: “For I, HaShem, am your God: you [Israel] shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Vayikra, 11:44). It seems that - contrary to the philosophical position of RamBam (who posits that HaShem is utterly unique and qualitatively different in kind to all Creation) - the Torah is telling us that we can share in HaShem’s Holiness. But how do we (humans) “be” Holy? Contrary to modern depictions of holiness as a “state of mind”, the Torah’s perspective is far more pragmatic and practical in its implications. Let me explain, with reference to this week’s “double portion”.

In Tazria and Metsora (and later chapters), the Torah lists four causes of impurity (or tumah): human corpses, animal carcasses, the escape of “life fluids” (blood and semen) and a ritual condition called “tzara’at” (not to be confused with leprosy). In the Biblical mind at least, a common motif underpins all four causes: an association with death. We should not be surprise, then, if impurity’s antithesis – holiness or purity - is inextricably tied to Death’s opposite: Life. And, indeed, it is. Ultimately (and unsurprisingly), the relationship between holiness and life has its root in HaShem who, depicted in Vayikra as “Holy”, is described by the Psalmist as “the Fountain of life” (Psalm 36:10). Thus, by logical inference from the biblical identity of holiness-life, we are able to conclude that HaShem’s command to “be Holy” equates to Moses’s (famous) demand in Devarim that Israel “choose life”!

Yet, our principal question remains: what does it mean to “be Holy” or “choose life”? By now, though, the answer should be more forthcoming. Indeed, our Sedrot have HaShem tell Moses precisely what a holy nation are required to do. Namely, to ensure that they (and the Temple) remain ritually pure (or holy) through purification sacrifices. For it is through sacrificial blood that the Temple is (seemingly literately) washed of the impurity caused by the four elements mentioned earlier. In doing so, Israel can ensure that HaShem (or the Shekhinah) rests in the Divine Abode. As I have said in a previous d’var, the Temple is a macrocosm. Thus, in ensuring that they and the Temple are holy, Israel –the holy nation – ensures that HaShem, the Fountain of Life, can maintain an active Presence in the Universe. That, it would seem, is the meaning behind the divine command towards holiness.

Dominic Olins

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