Confusion and Clarity
This week we will be reading an additional section of the Torah that discusses the process of purifying one who became impure by contact with the dead. Let us consider the meaning of the concepts of purity and impurity in the Torah. The Hebrew word for impurity is tumah, which is related to the word timtum, confusion. Every time a person has an experience that appears to demonstrate that we are controlled by physical forces, and that we are not essentially spiritually beings, our souls are in a state of confusion and therefore “impure,” tameh
One example of this is sleep. While we sleep, our actions (symbolized by the hands) are controlled entirely by instinct, rather than free will. We are experiencing a situation during which the physical, material world is in control. Therefore sleep is called by our Sages, “A sixtieth of death.” In order to dedicate our actions to the control of our free will, and to the service of G-d, we wash our hands in the morning as soon as we wake up. The washing is done by pouring water from a cup over the hands, three times on each hand, alternating right and left. We use a cup, rather than simply putting our hands under a tap, in order to make the washing a more deliberate, thoughtful action. Washing three times and alternating hands are both based on Kabbalistic ideas associated with the impurity of the hands as a result of sleep.
Death is the ultimate illusion that a human being is purely material and lacks moral freedom, because all we see of the corpse is the mortal body, without a hint of the immortal soul. This is why purity is always associated with life, and impurity with death. In the case of the family purity laws it is the loss of potential life that creates a state of impurity. A mikvah is always connected to a natural source of water (e.g. rainwater or a spring), which is as close to G-d’s original creation as we can get. Immersion in the mikvah symbolically reconnects one to the infinite and reminds us of our essential moral freedom and transcendent spiritual nature. It is an act of rebirth into the natural state of purity and clarity.
The section that we read this Shabbat, the Red Heifer, refers to a red cow that is slaughtered, burnt to ashes which are then mixed with water from a spring. This water is then sprinkled on the one who had come in contact with the dead in order to purify that person. The idea is, that life continues beyond death (slaughter), beyond return to dust (ashes) by uniting with the source (the spring) of all life, G-d. So the Red Heifer is a reminder to the confused mind, that human life is essentially not merely a physical, biological process, but is spiritual and eternal.