In search of purity

Yom Kippur 5773 / 2022

Abraham Skorka

Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Chapter 16 of Leviticus describes the rituals that the High Priest had to perform on the day of Atonement in order to achieve God’s forgiveness for the transgressions committed, as it is defined by the verse that summarizes the essence of this peculiar day (16: 30): “Because on this day (by means of officiated rituals and repentance) all your errors will be atoned for, to purify them, before God you will have to purify yourselves”

It follows from the quoted verse that by committing an error or a transgression the person becomes impure and that a state of purity is achieved through a ritual of sacrifices and offerings that accompany a feeling of repentance and contrition. In the case of damage caused to a neighbor, the damage must be compensated beforehand.

But what is impurity? Jacob Milgrom (The Rationale for Biblical Impurity, Janes 22 (1993), p. 107-111) explains that the meaning of impurity in the Bible refers to everything associated with death and purity to everything related to life. Death, in turn, refers to the transgression of the norms and precepts of God. Milgrom states that “The terms tumah (impurity) and qedusha (holiness), biblical impurity and holiness, are semantic opposites. And since the quintessence and source of qedusha resides with God, it is imperative for Israel to control the occurrence of impurity lest it impinge upon the realm of the holy God.”

The Bible associates crime, inequity, sexual aberrations, and idolatry with the impurity of the land on which one lives (Numbers 35:34; Leviticus 18:28; Ezekiel 36:17-18). Such behaviors distort the reality created by God with purity so that the human being develops it by increasing it through their actions. The sages of the Talmud (b. Berachot 60b) taught that upon awakening from sleep, among the prayers to be said there is one that begins with the affirmation: “God, the soul you have given me is pure”. And the psalmist (51:12) prays to God: “God create a pure heart in me and a spirit of righteousness renew in me”.

Purity is the mark left by the act of love, of charity, the sincere hug and authentic friendship.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is the day on which Moses’ return from Mount Sinai is commemorated. He returned with the second tablets of the law and God’s forgiveness of Israel for having worshiped a golden calf (b. Taanit 30b; Tanchuma [Buber] Vayiera 16)). It is the day in which God gives a new opportunity to the people of Israel. It is the moment that brings together the entire Jewish people in search of purity, knowing that God is always willing to forgive.

It is with a behavior of purity and holiness that the relationship between the individual and the God of the Bible is built. In Leviticus 19:2 we read the Creator’s mandate to the people of Israel: “Be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy”. The exegetes teach that the precept refers to the correct behavior that must be adopted, because through it a spiritual level of holiness is reached.

The multiple societies of the present manifest behaviors that reveal a great existential malaise. The need to escape from life towards strange realities through alcohol and drugs, the loss of the values ​​that the man of the past considered dignified, the unbridled appetite for obtaining goods, are some of the behaviors that especially affect young people of our time. The dissolution of the family institution, gender violence, contempt for the life of others and oneself, are a symptom of existential emptiness that affects many. It is the reflection of a life without holiness or purity in the biblical lexicon

Ezekiel (36:25-26) prophesies to the people saying that God will pour pure waters and will purify them from all their impurities and idolatry. And he will give them a new heart and a new spirit he will put in them, he will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and place one of flesh. Perhaps these words were in Jesus’ mind when he stated (Matthew 5:8), “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.

According to Leviticus 25:10, on the day of Kippur of the jubilee years the shofar -the ram’s horn- was blown, declaring the freedom of those who were in a state of slavery and those who had to lease their lands return to them. The freedom for all, the equity, the right to live with dignity, are expressions of the sense of purity that reached superlative dimensions in the Europe of the 18th century, which had its great influence on the emancipator movements of America. One of the most relevant symbols of the democratic values ​​that laid the foundations for the development of the United States is the Liberty Bell in which the aforementioned verse is engraved. From which we can appreciate the intimate relationship that exists in the biblical conception between purity and respect for the dignity of the individual.

At the end of the day of Kippur, it is a tradition in all temples to conclude prayers with the blowing of the shofar, in memory of the sound that was emitted during the jubilees declaring the freedom of all the inhabitants, according to one of the possible interpretations. It is to remember that a new possibility opens at the beginning of the year to go on a quest for purity.