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Aiming for Divinity: Harnessing Physical Drives for Spiritual Purposes

The end of parshat Shemini addresses the “tumah” (spiritual contamination) conveyed by various dead creatures, while parshat Tazria begins by discussing the “tumah” of a woman who has given birth to a boy. Many commentators seek to explain the Torah's purpose in juxtaposing the “tumah”of creatures and the “tumah” of humans.

Citing the Chatam Sofer, Rav Beker in Parperot L’Torah makes the following observation. While creatures only contaminate after death, humans may contaminate while still alive. Additionally, while the carcass of a dead animal only contaminates through touch and carrying (maga u’masa), a human corpse contaminates through the medium of “ohel” (a roofed enclosure) (see also mishna in Masechet Yadayim (4:6), which observes that the bones of humans contaminate, unlike the bones of a dead animal). Indeed, a human corpse is considered “avi avot ha’tuma” – the highest possible level of impurity.

What is the message?

Again citing the Chatam Sofer, Rav Beker suggests that when man acts righteously, he represents the pinnacle of creation – as Tehillim (8:6) states – “va’tachserayhu me’at me’Elokim – You have made him only slightly less than angels “ (on which Metzudat David comments that man surpasses all living creatures by virtue of his capacity for intelligent speech and rational communication).

On the other hand, when man engages in evil, he can reduce himself to a depraved state that is lower than even the most vicious animals. Consider for a moment, have you ever seen zebras enslaved in a concentration camp operated by lions? Of course not.  Lions kill zebras because they are hungry, not because they are cruel. But as the genocides throughout human history demonstrate, man can descend to the lowest depths of cruelty - causing pain for pure pleasure - thus rendering him more “corrupt” than any creature.

This is the message conveyed by the laws of “tumah” – man is susceptible to much greater “contamination” of himself and this world than animals by virtue of his capacity for evil in its most extreme forms.

Given this reality, how does one nurture righteousness, and avoid evil? The answer appears in another juxtaposition in parshat Tazria – that of the impurity of the woman for seven days after the birth of a son (12:2), and the mitzvah of milah (circumcision) on the eighth day after birth: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his skin shall be circumcised.” (12:3).

The message is that man elevates himself and achieves righteousness by sanctifying the physical and material aspects of his existence. That is, rather than employing our physical drives and material assets for self-gratification, we harness them for spiritual ends. This notion underlies not only the law of milah, but also the laws of brachot, kashrut, tzedaka, and other mitzvot where we assume obligations and restrictions to remind us that the essence of being human is not indulging the physical drives we share with animals (which can only lead to impurity), but utilizing those drives for spiritual purposes.

How do we translate these concepts into practical action? As we are confronted with important life choices that need to be made, we should consider carefully which choices represent self-indulgence, and which choices represent realization of our spiritual potential.

 With each choice we make that indulges our physical desires, we strengthen our animal side. Too much self-gratification, in turn, potentially puts us on a slippery slope towards increasingly immoral behavior (as per Chapter 13 of Mesilat Yesharim, where R. Luzzatto explains how excessive self-indulgence leads to sin). But every time we make a choice that nurtures our spiritual side we elevate ourselves another notch.

This is the consequence of choice and what makes each choice we make momentous. As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch observes, if all that is bad for us was repulsive, and all that is good for us were pleasurable, there would be no evil, but there would also be no virtue. By choosing the virtuous path each time we make a choice, even when the choice is uncomfortable, we are strengthening our "virtuousness." Because these choices add up over time and set us in a general direction, the stakes of each choice become very high indeed.

One halacha where a stark choice between self-indulgence and spirituality can be seen operating --  and at a very early stage of life at that – are the laws of “negiah” – i.e., not engaging in any physical contact with the opposite gender prior to marriage. While there are many practical explanations for this restriction, I’d like to suggest that one important purpose of these laws is to guide us towards healthy relationships that advance the Torah’s goal of sanctifying physical drives.

Concerning the Torah’s statement that husband and wife shall be “basar echad – one flesh” (Bereshit 2:24), Ramban explains that contrary to animals that do not commit exclusively to a single mate, and instead cohabit each season with different partners, Hashem implanted within humans the urge to bond exclusively with a single mate for life, and become “one” (basar echad) with that partner. Thus, lifelong companionship with another individual is a distinctly human trait.

Ramban’s insight has been recognized by modern psychologists. In his book, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, Viktor Frankl explains that the phenomenon of human love differs qualitatively from the mating of animals, for which cohabitation is merely an instrument for gratifying drives and instincts. Love as a human phenomenon only exists when an individual perceives the uniqueness of his or her partner to the extent that such partner becomes irreplaceable. As Frankl puts it, “[g]rasping the uniqueness of a loved one understandably results in a monogamous partnership. The partner is no longer interchangeable.”

It thus becomes easy to see why the Torah demands that physical contact not occur until after an exclusive commitment has been made – i.e., marriage. As noted, the Torah directs us to sanctify our physical drives rather than to indulge them.

Before marriage, physical contact is exclusively a tool for self-gratification. Our hormones cause us to desire intimacy, and a relationship involving physical contact helps satisfy these drives (a point made repeatedly in Gila Manolson’s excellent book, The Magic Touch). At this stage, physical contact cannot serve a spiritual purpose since there is no commitment to a uniquely human relationship – at any point, each person is free to walk away once the excitement wears off, and enter into a new relationship with someone else. Indeed, there is no basis for commitment if neither party has used the relationship to gain insight into what makes the other person unique and worth committing to for life. As such, are relationships focused primarily on physical contact that either party can instantly terminate any different than those of animals that are motivated by physical drives, and for whom mates are entirely interchangeable?

On the other hand, when individuals in a pre-marital relationship refrain from physical contact, an opportunity is created for each individual to focus on learning what makes the other person special - what makes him or her worth committing to for a lifetime. Only after a couple have gotten married – because each individual in the relationship has concluded that his or her partner is unique and worth committing to for life – then, and only then, does the Torah permit physical contact. Since it is only at that point that physical contact becomes a tool to fulfill spiritual purposes – i.e., to create new life, as well as to nurture a relationship that is uniquely human because both parties have committed to it exclusively.

In sum, the juxtaposition of animal and human impurity teaches us that if man limits his existence to satisfying physical drives, then he is no more than an animal – and possibly worse if such drives are left unchecked. But then the mitzvah of milah immediately comes to teach us that if man harnesses his physical drives and material assets for spiritual purposes then he can achieve a state approaching the divine. This is the challenge of life, and baruch Hashem, we have a Torah to show us the choices we should be making to realize our full human potential.


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