By Trisha Arlin
This week’s parsha is Emor, Speak, a command to Moses from God, Eh-mor el haCohanim, Speak to the priests. What follows is a series of rules that Moses must pass on. In chapter 21, God has Moses lay down the rules for the priests, the cohanim, on how not to defile themselves, lo yee tama, to remain ritually pure, tahor.
The idea of ritual purity for priests or women usually has very negative connotations for me, since I, like most people, tend to think of purity as good and impurity as bad. Clean is good, and dirty is bad, right? But often what the Torah calls impure is to me the normal stuff of life, the normal goopy viscous liquids we encounter, that every human being must engage in or with…I leave the specific goop to your imagination…and I just can’t see that as bad. But that’s my modern English speaking interpretation because that’s not what Jewish ritual purity is about. I think it’s about readiness, about preparation, about being ready for holiness.
Remember that, readiness and preparation.
For the cohanim, the priests, that would have meant becoming ready to do the sacrifices and rituals of the temple. For the High Priest, that would have also meant readiness to enter the Holy of Holies, Kadosh HaKodashim, the small building that only he entered and then only entered once a year, on Yom Kippur, to meet God in the most sacred and separate place and beg forgiveness for himself, his family, and his community. I say sacred and separate place because though we often translate the word Kadosh to mean holy it actually means, separate. We make something holy by separating it from the everyday, the khol. Another name for God is HaMavdil, the One who seperates.
And that’s how I think of ritual purity, as a holy separation, a readiness for sacrifice in the Torah and today, a readiness to prepare us for tefillah, prayer, gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness and tikkun olam, repair of the world.
In this parsha, in chapter 21, there are a series of acts and rituals that a priest must perform to maintain his, and it’s always HIS, holy separation. How he relates to the dead, how he shaves, what kind of women he can be with , what he wears on his body, what shape his body is in….these are restrictions of their time and I don’t feel a need to list them, or obsess and be angry about how they are sexist and elitist. We can stipulate that about half the Torah if not more. I’m interested in now.
One way we can purify ourselves in modern times is with water, like washing your hands before a meal. To really purify yourself you to go to the mikveh. You do a full immersion in water, your entire body, and say a prayer. Traditionally observant men and women go to the mikveh for many reasons, for women once a month, or after a birth, or for a wedding or for conversion, but liberal Jews often go for other reasons , to ritually acknowledge life changes and events like a B’nai Mitzvah, a graduation, menopause, a divorce, a gender transition, all sorts of things.
What else is there to be ritually pure for? I’m a Kohen. Or, to traditionally observant Jews, a Bat Cohen, a daughter of a Kohen. In the Conservative synagogue I grew up in, that meant my father, certainly never me, got called up to the Torah first, because a Kohen is supposed to always have the first of the traditional seven aliyot.
My father also would get called up to do the special blessing of the priests during the High Holidays, something we have done and not done at Kolot. Perhaps it makes us a bit uncomfortable, to think that somebody, simply because of his or her genes, might be able to somehow channel God and holiness and facilitate redemption and teshuvah. It makes me uncomfortable, but I have to admit, when I have done it it’s been very cool,very mystical and special. You cover your face with your tallit, put you hands up in a mystical sign, and it’s like you become a conduit for holiness. It’s profound. Now I know, as a good leftie progressive, that I’m not supposed to feel this or to like it, but i do. I feel the responsibility, I feel separate and holy and somehow even a little tahor, ritually pure. It is good. And why should I keep all that good feeling to myself? Especially in this time that calls for some much action from us, wouldn’t it be great if you each could imagine yourself as the Cohen Gadol in your own Kadosh HaKodashim, the High Priest in your own Holy of Holies, immersing in your own mikveh, to imagine yourself as a holy vessel, pure and ready for inspiration and holy action.
(This next paragraph is a short version of a guided meditation) So I invite you to cover yourself with your tallit and imagine that everything outside your tallit is mundane and everything inside it, especially you, is kadosh, holy and separate. Today we are all kohanim. Close your eyes, breathe regulary, imagine that every breath is a prayer to and for life. Think of yourself as stepping out the door of this room and finding yourself in a meadow, where you see a small house in the distance, a house of one room, with a door but no windows. You walk towards it and realize, this is your Holy of Holies, where you are the Kohen Gadol. You go inside, there is a small pool of running water there, this is your mikvah. You are completely yourself here, and you step into this mikveh and go under the water. Baruch atah adonai elohainu ruach ha olam, asher kidishanu bemitzvoav, eetivanu al hatevvilah. Bless the One-ness, God, Breath of the Universe, sanctifying us with God’s commandments and commanding us on immersion. Dunk yourself again, and make up your own blessing, one for your family and friends. Dunk yourself again, and make up another blessing, one for your community and your world. Come out of the water. There’s a lovely fluffy towel. Dry yourself off. Imagine that now you are ready for holiness, for action, for change. When you are ready, stand, come out of the Holy of Holies, walk out the door through the meadow, back to yourself with the tallit covering your head.
We give thanks for the cleansing water
That makes us ready and prepared for prayer and action.
We are all holy vessels
Made in the image of God.
We give thanks for the ones who offer prayers.
We give thanks for the ones who take action.
We cannot heal the world without both,