Mordechai Silverstein

Conquering the ‘I’ of Idolatry

The laws of ritual purity played a large role in religious life during Temple times. After the Temple was destroyed, they were codified into law in the Mishnah. That said, with time, their literal relevance ultimately fell into disuse. This, however, created a religious problem and an opportunity for a tradition which saw the Torah as eternally significant. The rabbinic tradition, throughout the ages, used its interpretive tools to reshape and infuse that which on the face of it seemed anachronistic, into a vital and significant religious message.

In relatively modern times, the Hasidic tradition took on this challenge and transformed the laws concerning ritual purity/impurity, through the use of allegory, into a tool for examining the inner life of the individual. It reframed the idea of ritual impurity into a discussion of the forces in a person’s life which draw him/her away from the divine element imbued in each individual.


At the end of Parshat Metzorah, we read a verse intended to sum up the significance of the laws of ritual impurity:

You shall put the children of Israel on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through uncleanness by defiling My mishkan (sanctuary) which is in their midst. (Leviticus 15:31)

Ostensibly, this verse is a warning against entering in the Mishkan (the sanctuary) or the Temple precinct in a state of impurity. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berozovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (Israel, 20 century), instead, expresses well the symbolic nature of this condition. The “mishkan which is in their midst” represents the divine element which God has imparted to each of us and the “uncleanness”, represents those things which alienate us from the “godliness” found in us, namely, those things which keep us from our “true” selves. This divine absence represents a sort of “death” in a religious sense. (Netivot Shalom Vayikra, p. 73)

The rabbinic sages of the past also understood this malady as a religious/psychological one and saw in the cure offered by the Torah, both an indication of the nature of the ailment and the symbolic means for its cure. The prescribed Torah ritual included the following ingredients:

The priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and hyssop… (Leviticus 14:5)

The following midrash tries to make symbolic sense of two of the ingredients used in the ritual cure:

‘Cedar wood’ – the cedar is the highest of trees. And since the person raised themselves up like the cedar, tzaraat came upon him… There is no plant lowlier than hyssop, and since the person humbled himself, therefore, he was cured by way of hyssop. (Tanhuma Metzorah 3)

If we combine the ideas contained in these two sources, the state of alienation from the “godliness” found in each person is a product of radical arrogance or idolatry of self. This is an ailment we are very familiar with in our day. Individuals stricken with this “ailment” cannot admit to being wrong or doing wrong. They raise themselves above God and therefore, have no place for God. The only cure is the way of “hyssop” (zaatar, for spice enthusiasts), namely, to regain a sense of humility. Only then, can God reenter their lives. Only then will they be worthy of living in society and finding a place in their lives for others.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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