In the Torah’s conception of a Jewish nation-state, ritual purity was a prominent element of daily life, and all people were to be mindful of their purity status at all times. The state of impurity makes people unsuited to specific activities and puts them at risk of contaminating sanctified foods and objects. A person in a state of impurity must undergo a predefined purification process that usually includes the passage of a specified amount of time.
Although we no longer practice most purity laws today, we still retain certain ritual immersion practices for our bodies or kitchenware as a legacy of these laws.
Traditionally, the stewards and supervisors of this body of law were the priests, the kohanim, who were expected to be knowledgeable and fluent in these laws. This knowledge was essential given their role in Temple service and year-round consumption of Terumah, the donated foods that only a kohen could consume while in a state of ritual purity.
The prime source of impurity within these laws is death; being near a dead person changes a person’s status to ritually impure. The Torah’s impurity doesn’t neatly align with anything we can relate to today; it has nothing to do with hygiene or sin.
The Torah holds different people to different purity standards; most people can attend to the dead with no issue. Given that a kohen’s life and work revolve around purity, it follows that a kohen’s attending to the dead is more restricted; even today, a kohen may not intentionally come into contact with a dead body nor approach too closely graves within a Jewish cemetery, except for seven legally defined close relatives.
The Kohen Gadol was held to even stricter standards; he wasn’t even allowed to contaminate himself to attend to a deceased parent.
Apart from the hierarchy of purity standards that exists for people, there is also a hierarchy of purity in time. Before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would isolate for seven days to attain the highest purity status and perform his duties on the year’s holiest day. With these seven days of preparation, he could enter the Holy of Holies and perform the most sacred ritual of the year.
Purity plays a central and pervasive role in the Torah’s conception of Jewish life, and yet in a landscape where purity is everything, there is a revealing exception. There is a law that obligates all Jewish people to take responsibility for the burial of an unattended Jewish body; this obligation is almost absolute and takes precedence over the entire body of purity laws – מת מצוה.
Traditional burial is recommended in general to all humans as all are created in God’s image – חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. Traditional burial is mandatory for Jews; other funeral rites including cremation are prohibited. The mitzvah of burial includes a component of urgency that for certain close relatives, nearly all positive obligations are suspended until after the burial has concluded to facilitate prompt burial. It is degrading to allow a body, which remains sacred even in death, to gratuitously lie idle and unburied – קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּי־קִלְלַת אֱלֹקים תָּלוּי.
Every Jewish person must intentionally contaminate themself to bury someone who has no one else; every kohen must as well, even though they are unrelated and would not otherwise be permitted to contaminate themselves if there were anyone else able to attend to the burial. The obligation to immediately bury the unattended dead is so compelling that it even obligates a Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights this hierarchy of laws to reveal the Torah’s sense of where human priorities ought to lie.
Even the holiest person, on the most sacred day of the year, about to perform his holiest and most core function, must roll up his sleeves and wade into someone else’s mess and get their hands dirty; which is to say that no one is above serving others. It is a grave mistake to be too good for that; the Torah endorses that the correct decision under the circumstances is to forgo performing his duties on Yom Kippur and that the Yom Kippur service is subordinate to his duty to bury the dead.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders if the Torah obligates all people to take responsibility for the unattended dead, what might it then ask of us concerning the living dead, people born Jewish and yet totally unaffiliated, cut off, and isolated from any trace of Judaism. While the analogy isn’t precise, perhaps it’s directionally accurate.
The Jewish People are a sanctified nation where all are called to serve – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ.
But however holy or self-righteous you are or think you may be, the Torah demands that you get off your high horse, roll up your sleeves and get out there and attend to physical and spiritual orphans, people who don’t have anyone else. If the Kohen Gadol encounters an unattended dead body on Yom Kippur, his role and duties are suspended entirely; his only responsibility is to help the person in front of him.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s followers took this teaching to heart; pioneering heroes and their brave families moved across the globe to set up a Jewish presence worldwide. They stepped far beyond their comfort zones with enormous self-sacrifice out of concern for others.
It might be a bit much to ask that of yourself, but you don’t have to move to the middle of nowhere to recognize that attending to the needs of others is one of the Torah’s highest priorities. The Kotzker mocked the Tzaddik in pelts, a holy man in his fur coat. When people are cold, does the righteous man light a fire that warms others, or does he simply sit back in his comfortable coat sending thoughts and prayers for their wellbeing?
When God talks to Avraham about what it would take to save the people of Sodom, God’s conception of righteous people worth saving is people who are out on the streets, engaging with and influencing their surroundings – צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.
We don’t live our lives with purity at the forefront of our minds. But the Torah consistently reminds us where the purity of our priorities must lie.
Caring for others is a core part of the spiritual life. A spiritual life that doesn’t engage the world with acts of care and compassion towards others isn’t spiritual at all.