Ignorant Body (Chukat)
Ignorance is a voluntary misfortune. -Nicholas Ling
Judaism has a unique, specific and detailed relationship with death. It is neither afraid of death, nor does it worship that realm. Jewish law defines and circumscribes the parameters of how death interacts with our lives. One of the most fascinating aspects, which is explored in this week’s Torah reading of Chukat, is the law that exposure to a dead body conveys ritual contamination. The Torah also prescribes the process of ritual purification.
The Berdichever digs deeper to understand one of the possible reasons for why an inanimate body should make both people and objects “impure.” He analyzes the existential and constant battle between our bodies and our souls regarding the performance of God’s commandments.
Our physical, material selves are generally incapable of understanding the rationale for performing the Mitzvot. Our bodies are preoccupied with the myriad of desires and urges which drive us, with little interest in doing good, or being benevolent, or pursuing a spiritual life. Our bodies are ignorant. They are ignorant of the greater spiritual truth and reality of the universe. Our bodies are unaware and uninterested in God, in the divine, in our eternal souls. Our bodies are little more than dumb animals.
It is our soul that realizes the importance of the commandments. It is our soul that understands the reason and value of the Mitzvot and is driven to fulfill them. However, it has an often-uncooperative partner in the body. If the body would only know the reasons behind the commandments, it too would pursue their fulfillment relentlessly.
Nonetheless, while the body and the soul are joined, the soul can push the body, it can train the body, it can encourage the body to pursue a spiritual life. It has the power to direct the body away from its animalistic pursuits and lead it to a life of meaning and goodness.
However, once a person dies, once the soul has been separated from the body, the body reverts to the ignorant being it was before it housed the soul. That ignorance, that lack of a driving soul is what makes the dead body a source of impurity, of spiritual contamination.
The Berdichever adds a known caveat, that the graves of the righteous don’t convey impurity. Their souls refined their bodies to a point where their bodies were no longer ignorant. Their bodies, of their own volition, also desired to fulfill God’s commands. Their bodies were “educated” and pure, even in death.
May our soul’s desires override our bodies baser urges, and may we strive to be conveyers of purity.
To 243 years of American independence.