Mattot – two paths to purity

July 18, 2012

Living in the Land of Israel, one cannot help but be influenced by that giant amongst the rabbis, a giant of the spirit and a master of every facet of Jewish scholarship and practice – Rav Kook, of blessed memory.(google him for a short biography)

I was educated in a Lithuanian yeshiva of Maimonodean rationalism, headed by the greatest Rambamist in the world. Despite his admiration for Rav Kook, his approach was considered too mystical and we did not study his works.

But here in Israel Rav Kook’s great, long shadow still hovers over the land. This week I have decided to start looking into his various writings and draw out some of his teachings on the weekly sedra.

In this week’s sedra of Mattot, after the victory over the Midianites, Elazar the High Priest explained to the soldiers how to kasher and purify the metal utensils captured in the war:

“As far as the gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead are concerned: whatever was used over fire must be passed through fire, and it will be clean. However, it must be then purified with the sprinkling water.”  (Num. 31:22-23)
The Midianite vessels had become defiled in battle, through contact with death. They needed to be purified, by sprinkling over them water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer. This is the standard process of purification, a process that takes a week to complete.

Instant Purity

There exists a second way to purifying utensils — more drastic, but immediate. One simply makes the utensil unusable by boring a large hole in it. Then it is no longer considered a vessel. When the puncture is mended, it is as if a new utensil has been formed, without any residual impurity.

The Talmud (Shabbat 15b) relates that the Hasmonean queen Shlomzion (circa 100 BCE) once held a celebration in honor of her son. Tragically, one of the guests died during the party. As a result, the royal cutlery and dishes became ritually impure. The queen wanted to avoid waiting a week to purify them, so she commanded that the utensils be rendered unusable, and then forged anew.

The rabbis informed the queen, however, that her shortcut was not acceptable. Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach — the queen’s brother — had already ruled that impure utensils that are broken still retain their original impure state after they are fixed.

What led the Sages to make this decree? They were afraid that the ritual of red heifer ashes would fall into disuse if everyone used the faster method of boring a large hole and then fixing the implement.

How to Rectify an Imperfect World

There is, however, a deeper significance to Rabbi Shimon Ben Shatach’s decree. The laws of ritual purity may seem distant from modern life. But upon closer examination, they can have much to teach us — about imperfections in the world, and in each individual.

There are two ways to purify oneself from past follies. The more drastic method is to totally destroy those areas into which evil has rooted itself, and then rebuild from the raw materials left over. This was the method used in the time of Noah, when God purged an utterly coorupt world with the devastating waters of the Flood.

An individual may similarly choose to eliminate deeply rooted personality defects by afflicting his body and soul. With the breakdown of his powers, the evil is also destroyed. Then he can rebuild himself in a moral, just fashion.

Given the rampant level of violence and immorality that have become so entrenched among the human race, the world certainly deserves to have been destroyed. Yet, God in His kindness established another method of purification. The preferred path is to gradually rectify moral defects over time, so that even those unbridled forces may be utilized for good. Only in extreme cases is it necessary to purify through destruction.

The rabbinical decree not to purify utensils by breaking them now takes on a deeper significance. We should not become accustomed to this drastic form of purification, which weakens constructive energies as it purges impurities. It is better to use the slower method of red heifer ashes, thereby allowing the vessel to become pure while retaining all of its original strength.

(Based on Ain Ayah vol.3 Pages 47-8)

After writing this I was saddened to hear of the passing of Maran Hagaon Harav Eliyashiv zatza”l who was a great admirer and Talmid of Rav Kook. In fact Rav Kook made the shiudduch between Rav Eliyashiv and the daughter of Reb Aryeh Levin and was mesader chuppa vekiddushin.

Rav Eliyashiv trod the path towards purity for 99 years without interruption. ( from the age of 3 to 102 )

I am shocked beyond words that I have already seen criticism and negative comments about the Rav even before his grave was closed. Mainly from the so-called “modern orthodox” camp and some who declare themselves to be rationalists!
I repeat a saying of my late Mother, of blessed memory, : if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all!

Which rabbis permitted them to speak evil of the dead?!

So I ask myself. Why did between 400,000 and 500,000 people, on the hottest night within memory (37 degrees outside) in Jerusalem stream after the coffin of a 102 year old man who held no official position and who had suffered bad health for the last six months.
The vast majority of these people had never actually met Rav Eliyashiv. Nor did they all agree with every psak issued or view expressed?

Yesterday in the Knesset, the word parasite was heard over and over again. Anyone who studies Torah exclusively is a parasite. 45% of the youth of Tel Aviv who avoid the draft to persue a hedonistic lifestyle are the norm.

So up to half a million Jews followed the coffin of the acknowledged world leader of the parasites. The message is clear. They all wanted to be Rav Eliyashiv.

We cannot be Rav Eliyashiv but in a display of kavod hatorah we declared that we all wanted to be Rav Eliyashiv. He is the watermark by which we will all be judged.

A man who lived in a run-down two room apartment with broken furniture in which he raised 10 children. A man who refused all honour and position. Who refused gifts. Who did not apply for the job of Posek hador and who received people from all over the world day and night with a charming smile. A man who was asked to tackle the most difficult, complex questions in all areas of Halacha and didn’t flinch or refuse.
It is reputed that he didn’t waste more than 5 minutes a day!

Nobody alive can actually sum up the life of Rav Eliyashiv, but the best comment I have heard so far is that his relationship to the Talmud was like that of an alcoholic to a bottle of booze. He just couldn’t get enough and was never satisfied.

We know that there has been a decline in the generation when the deceased leaves no peer. We shall not see his type again in our lifetime. May his merit protect all Israel.

Chodesh tov veShabbat Shalom

Rabbi Meir Wise

One Response to “Mattot – two paths to purity”

  1. Shlomi said

    The comments you have heard are not surprising. The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) states, “Greater is the hatred that the ammei ha-aretz have to the scholar, than the hatred of the non-Jews to Israel; and their wives (hate even) more than they.

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