Chukat: Purity of the Land of Israel

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100% Pure
02 Jul 2009

This week’s parsha talks about the tumah of a dead body, and the way to become purified from it. Nowadays, the main halakhic importance of this tum’a is that Kohanim are commanded to avoid it. One interesting aspect of this mitzva is that Eretz Yisrael is considered ritually pure, but all other lands are impure. Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh writes that Kohanim are not permitted to leave the Land of Israel unless it is for some vitally important mitzva (SA YD 369:1, 372:1).

This special state where Eretz Yisrael is pure and abroad is defiled is not mainly due to the actual likelihood of encountering an unmarked grave in each place. The gemara explicitly tells us that the tum’a of abroad was the result of a deliberate decree of the Sages (Shabbat 15b). Conversely, we learn that the Sages searched for far-reaching leniencies to establish the purity of Eretz Yisrael, even when there seemed to be a rational concern for the presence of graves. (Ketubot 20b, Nazir 65b.)

Chazal wanted the laws of tumah to teach us an educational lesson about the underlying spiritual nature of Eretz Yisrael and chutz laaretz, and not only about the statistical probability of finding a grave. Rebbe Yehoshua gave an emphatic expression to this idea; when some of the Sages thought it was necessary to declare Yerushalaim an area of tumah which would be off limits to Kohanim, he stood up and said, “Wouldn’t it be a disgrace and a shame for us to decree defilement on the city of our fathers?!” Of course afterwards he enumerated an acceptable halakhic basis for a lenient ruling, but the educational element is clearly important. (Zevachim 113a.)

Tosafot suggest that one reason for the the decree of tumah outside of the land of Israel is so that people shouldn’t move there. In addition, they give two possible halakhic foundations for the decree: the dead of the flood, and the many Jews who were killed outside of Israel (Tosafot Nazir 54b d.h. eretz haamim). Let us study the significance of this explanation.

The dead of the flood would be a problem only abroad according to the view that the flood didn’t afflict the land of Israel (Zevachim 113a, based on Yechezkel 22:23). Those who lived in Eretz Yisrael died from the steam which accompanied the flood; Rashi explains that since the flood didn’t leave them partially covered in the mud, they received a proper burial when the land was resettled after the flood.

Presumably a similar consideration would apply to the Jews who were killed abroad. While innumerable Jews were murdered r”l in Eretz Yisrael as well, we know that HaShem performed great miracles so that they would receive a proper burial (Berakhot 48b). But abroad this was not always possible.

One of the main messages of the tumah of the dead body is that man is created in the Divine image, and that image inheres in the body to a certain extent even after death (see Bechor Shor commentary on our parsha). In Eretz Yisrael, we attain the highest expression of G-d’s image during life, and HaShem provides for its maximal preservation after death. It is for this reason that the resurrection will take place here.

Outside of the Holy Land, it is far more difficult to give the highest expression to our Divine image during life; and after the soul leaves the body, it is more difficult to preserve. The boiling rage of our sins not only severs the soul from the body, as in the case of those washed away by the waters of the flood which were heated by the sins of mankind; they actually deface the body itself. Not only are the Jews subject to the cruel whims of hostile nations, their bodies are unable to find a decent resting place. (Until the time of the resurrection when they will make their way to the Land of Israel.)

Chazal’s creation of a status of purity from tumat met in Eretz Yisrael and defilement abroad should remind all Jews, and especially Kohanim who must keep the highest level of sanctity, that during life the ideal place to develop our Divine Image and to express it with our physical selves is here in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.