How Does It Work?
For the week of April 09, 2022 / 8 Nisan 5782
Torah reading: Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)
Originally posted the week of April 5, 2014 / 5 Nisan 5774 (revised)
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Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. (Vayikra/Leviticus 15:31)
Reading this verse makes me think, “How does this work?” God gave the people of Israel particular directions to follow with regard to how they were to deal with ritual uncleanness. Certain diseases, bodily emissions, and childbirth required people to perform set procedures in order to restore themselves to a state of ritual purity.
I don’t tend to concern myself about how things work with regard to God and his directives. If God says these things result in defilement and tells his people to follow his purification instructions, then that should be good enough. After all, as God’s servants, our job is to obey him. Whether or not we understand how this sort of thing works is beside the point.
That said, I still wonder why the possibility of defilement was so dangerous. Some may suggest that what is going on here is God’s providing effective health principles cloaked in spiritual terms. God’s directions had the people distancing themselves from others as well as washing themselves and any affected objects. Sounds like medically informed precautions and procedures to me. But is that what this is all about? Is the mention of God and things like sacrifice nothing more than coating around otherwise practical procedures to enable a superstitious ancient culture to swallow them?
This kind of perspective is a typical, but cynical, lens through which much of the Bible has been viewed by many modern thinkers. The same collection of writings that has blessed the world with its wisdom on health, as well as justice, government, and morality, also reveals truths about God and spiritual things. To dissect the Bible in order to separate its supposed unreasonable, illogical, superstitious, backward spiritual components from its progressive, wise, and effective practical ones fails to recognize how the practical aspects (that many like) arise from its spiritual foundation (that they don’t like). This approach also provides no control over which practical aspects are to be accepted as valid and which are not. It all comes down to personal preferences.
The warning given by God regarding “uncleanness” is very serious. Failure to carefully follow God’s instructions results in death. While history has shown that ignoring sound principles of hygiene and the like has devastated whole communities, that is not what is going on here. Death was the consequence of defiling the Mishkan (English: tabernacle), the precursor to the temple, where the sacrifices were offered. But how does the defiling of the Mishkan result in death?
I am not going to try to come up with a scientific answer, looking for technical physical connections of cause and effect. For the issue here is not found in the realms of physics, chemistry, or biology. It’s relational. God had determined to dwell among the people of Israel. Think about that for a second. The Master of the Universe took up residency on earth and gave regulations to his Chosen People on how to deal with ritual uncleanness. It was essential to follow these rules. To ignore them led to death.
If they followed God’s instructions, nothing to worry about. However, there’s more to ritual uncleanness than what is addressed in this passage. God’s dwelling with the people placed them in a most precarious situation, since no nation, Israel included, could stay ritually clean. Death is not simply the result of acute ritual uncleanness as described in this week’s Torah reading portion. It is the result of the chronic uncleanness we all have been defiled with since the Garden of Eden. These rituals were designed to help us to see that. The greatest problems of the world are not the result of random, meaningless cause and effect. They are due to the ritual uncleanness of the human family who has defiled what was meant to be a holy and pure world where God lives.
This is why the Messiah came. He is the only one who, through his death and resurrection, provides us with the essential and lasting purity we need in order for God to fellowship with us. To neglect his offer of cleansing is to invite death. How does this work exactly? I still don’t know; but it does.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version