There is an morbid vaudeville joke about the hapless shlemazel train engineer who was fired from his job. Feeling depressed, he puts his foot to the third rail, hoping to electrocute himself. Somehow, since this poor guy cannot seem to do anything right, he survives and is not zapped by the high voltage. Why, you might ask? Because, of course, he was a poor conductor!
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the concept of “sword is as the corpse”. This is a halakhic principle based on a verse (Bamidbar 19:16) which accords metal utensils which are in contact with a corpse with the same severity of impurity as the corpse. Various rishonim debate how far this goes, but most hold that this rule is specific to metal.
What is the significance that metal seems to conduct impurity in this manner? Likkutei Halachos (Hechsher Keylim 1:1-3) explains:
Metal is the source of money and therefore idolatry. This is why specifically metal utensils must be toiveled and purified if they were originally owned by a gentile. The metal is an attractor and conductor of impurity and must be purged. However, when it comes to spiritual potential, there is always a balance between purity and impurity. Thus, metal which is particularly receptive to noxious evil forces, also has the ability to ascend and attract higher spiritual forces. This is why in regard to kashrus, a metal utensil absorbs the non-kosher material but can be purged through fire or heat, while earthenware utensils cannot be purged and must be destroyed.
Likkutei Halachos likens the metal utensil to the Jew, who might descend to obscene depths but also can emerge from the furnace of tribulations purged and purified. We will continue this theme of duality in spiritual potential for purity and impurity on the next daf.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum Nazir 54 Psychology of the Daf Yomi
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the halakhic idea that impurity from a corpse and a grave ascend directly without any barriers.
Shem Mishmuel (Mishpatim 7 and Chukas 3) expands on the theme we saw in the previous daf, that when there is potential for impurity, so too there is greater potential for purity, and vice versa. This is why there is a teaching that blessing is not conferred on a counted item, and further, that when Jews are counted it can bring a plague (Shemos 30:12). Since counting obstructs blessing, it leaves a vulnerability for plague and curse. Similarly, the human soul when it is present in the body has maximal potential for purity and spiritual achievement, but upon death, the corpse has the strongest and vilest potential for impurity. We saw earlier in Nazir 43a, that even though a cohen is forbidden to be in the same room as a person on his deathbed, as there is some aspect of impurity, it is not fully realized until death. Only when the soul departs is the full intensity of the impurity activated.
It is the void of death, the hole in our souls, that makes us vulnerable to every kind of impurity. In those moment of despair, we can descend into nihilism and heresy unless we find a way to fill it with purity. Elsewhere in Psychology of the Daf (Nedarim 83) we have noted this duality. We quoted a Rus Rabbah (2:20), which provides the backstory of what happened to Orpah upon her return to Moav. While we know Rus’s choice to stay with Naomi brought her on a trajectory of greater spiritual growth, leading her to become a matriarch in the Davidic dynasty, Orpah engages in an orgy with “100 philistines”, and a “dog”. (Chazal do certainly have a way with words. I would not take this literally, but rather the rabbis are referring to how low a person in Orpah’s situation can go, if one stubbornly continues to deny spiritual losses and fear of what is happening.) Having failed to grab the brass ring of spiritual success, Orpah doesn’t merely level off. Instead she endlessly chases a high of sexual oblivion. This is not only about women, men do this too. Imagine the Lothario, believing that he will be immortal, never wanting to settle down with one person. All the while perhaps claiming, he is “just trying to find the right one”, but like a modern day Achashveirosh with a smartphone, swipes right or left, choosing a new partner every night.
We must respect human nature’s constant striving and dissatisfaction. It can be channeled toward striving for more and more greatness, or God forbid, and endless chase after ephemeral nothingness to fill the void.