April 14, 2016
In his discussion of the tumah, or spiritual impurity, which is imparted to males as a result of various bodily excretions, in this week’s sedra, Abarbanel is puzzled by the fact that the concept of tumah is also associated with the emission of semen.
The Torah tells us that when a man and woman have marital relations they must immerse in a mikveh, or ritual bath, and remain in a state of tumah until evening. How can it be that an act which is one of the most important mitzvot of the Torah — both from the perspective of reproduction and the perspective of man’s responsibility to fulfill the needs of his wife — result in a state of spiritual impurity?
Abarbanel answers that, in general, bodily secretions whose elimination is not necessary for the health of the individual create a state of tumah. This explains why the elimination of feces, urine, mucus and saliva does not create a state of tumah. The elimination of seminal fluid, however, is not necessary for bodily health, and as a result does result in a form of spiritual impurity. In this case, the state of tumah is also a result of the Torah’s desire to establish reasonable parameters for marital activity. As holy, natural and important as this activity is, we must always be reminded that we must be the masters of our physical desires rather than being slaves to them. Abarbanel is saying that by imposing this limitation the Torah is preventing us from engaging in the kind of activity that characterizes the immoral behavior of people like adulterers who give themselves over totally to their physical desires.
However, because of this importance, the duration of the state of tumah is limited to one day, and there is no required sacrificial offering, unlike other situations where the duration of tumah is seven days with a required sacrificial offering.
This Shabbat being Shabbat hagadol we will read the special haftorah which includes the description of Elijah’s ascent to heaven.
The Radak comments on this pasuk as follows:
“… And a stormy wind took him up from the earth into the air; just as it lifts things that are light, so it lifted him by God’s will onto the wheel of fire, which burned his clothes –except for the robe, and his flesh and his body, and his spirit returned to the Lord who gave it.”
Thus in the opinion of the Radak, Eliyahu died, and only his spirit returned to God. The uniqueness of the description of his death lies in the way in which he died – a death that was different from any other mentioned in Tanakh.
In Eliyahu’s ascent in a storm to heaven there was a process of separation of body and soul. The soul ascended to heaven, while the body and its clothing were consumed. Thus nothing remained for burial. Thus only the second half of the pasuk which we quoted from Kohelet was fulfilled in Eliyahu, while the first half – “the dust will return to the earth as it was” – did not happen in this instance. In this way the Radak answers the difficult problem posed by our chapter.
The Abarbanel criticizes his interpretation:
“Whether Eliyahu died or not, and where he is – we have no way of establishing this through regular reasoning, but rather must rely on the tradition of our Sages and their teachings with regard to these pesukim. We find no mention in the text that Eliyahu is said to have “died,” as we are told concerning Moshe and all the other prophets, which shows that his body and spirit were not parted as is generally the case when people die by natural means. And if the commentators have said that it cannot be that mortal bodies cannot dwell among the heavenly bodies or above them… we cannot believe their words that his (Eliyahu’s) body and clothing were burned in that hot air, or in the element of fire that was upon him, and that (only) the spirit of the prophet was bound up in the bond of life with Hashem, like the other souls of the prophets and the righteous men of God (as explained by the Radak). For if this was so, the text would not expound on the way in which Eliyahu was taken up, and that he ascended in a storm. And why is the word “death” not mentioned there? Could we say that people who are burned do not die, as do those who are buried in the land?”