Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary "Meaning in Mitzvot" on the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion's "Virtual Beit Midrash", www.vbm-torah.org. Subscribers are currently learning about Shabbat.
Among the utensils sanctified in our parsha is the laver used by the Kohanim for washing their hands and feet before engaging in avoda (Shemot 39:39, 40:11). This washing can only be done from a vessel (Rambam Biat Mikdash 5:10). Some halakhic sources liken washing for bread to the washing of the Kohanim from the kior (Chullin 106, Tosefta Yadayim 2:1).
In two weeks we will read parshat "Para", which describes the preparation of the purifying "mei chatat" made from the ashes of the red heifer. This mixture too is prepared specifically in a vessel (Bamidbar 19:17), and hand washing is likened also to the purification of the mei chatat (Yadayim 1:2). The Rishonim mention both the kior and the mei chatat as sources for the requirement to wash hands for bread specifically from a vessel (See MB 159:1).
What is the meaning of this requirement to wash specifically from a vessel? We will see that the laws of washing hint at a delicate balance between Divine and human influence in our lives.
In each of these three cases - kior, mei chatat, and washing for bread - the source of the water symbolizes something which is completely natural, completely from HaShem. The water for the kior must be fit for a mikveh (Rambam Biat Mikdash 5:12); that for the mei chatat is limited further to mayim chayim from a spring (Bamidbar 19:17); the washing water needs to be similar in many ways to the water for a mikveh and for mei chatat. (SA OC 160, MB 1 and 21.)
A vessel, on the other hand, implies human intervention. We see from the beginning of SA OC 159 that the definition of a "kli" for the purpose of washing is largely based on the the characteristics which make a vessel susceptible to tuma. Natural objects do not acquire tuma; ritual impurity inheres only in objects and food which have been specially prepared for human use.
And the list of vessels which are fit for washing is almost identical to those which are unfit for mikveh water, precisely because the human element of a vessel destroys the water's natural character (Mikvaot 4:1). Immersing in a mikveh also has an element of human involvement because of the importance of intention in immersion. See SA YD 198:48, Beit Yosef end of YD 198.)
The importance of human involvement in washing is further emphasized by the requirement that the water be poured from a vessel specifically through human effort. (SA OC 159:7.)
Both elements are essential in the process of purification: the pristine source, symbolized by the natural origin of the water, and the human involvement, symbolized by the need for a vessel and human effort. The spirit of purity, the ruach tahara, does not originate with us; it is a spirit from on high, from a place withGod where no impurity exists. But God can not do our work for us; we can cleanse ourselves of our impurities only through our own participation. "One who comes to purify himself is assisted" (Yoma 38b) - but the individual's own initiative is essential.
Rabbi Asher Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. Rabbi Meir - who had given a series on Business Halacha at the Center, and has taught a series on the Meaning in Mitzvot. We hope to have him back at the Center some time in the future.