Metsora 5774: Masters of the Mind
In Perashat Metsora we continue to read of the unusual forms of the condition of sara’at. This week, however, we begin to address the processes for purification. Sara’at is seen by our hakhamim as a physical manifestation that signals a deeper malady within the spirit connected with one’s thinking or behavior. The purification process had many steps, but it generally culminated with one’s immersion in purifying waters (mikveh).
Rambam (Hilkhot Mikva’ot, 11:12) offers a beautiful insight in examining this ancient process. He begins by reminding us that the entire corpus of law in the Torah that deals with tum’a and tahara (spiritual purity and impurity) has no apparent rationality. Rather, the laws are what we term hukim – laws whose reasons are not clearly perceivable. Immersion in a mikveh falls under this category, for the immersion is not meant to cleanse anything that is physically unclean. It is entirely focused on the spiritual health of the individual. Therefore the effects of the mikveh are very much dependent on our thought in addition to being dependent upon our physical presence within the waters. (Hagiga, 18b)
In approaching these laws, Rambam contends that although they may have no apparent rationale, we are encouraged to apply tasteful reasoning to these laws. There is benefit in bringing sensibility to that which is not apparently so. Concerning mikveh he offers the following:
It is clear and apparent that [spiritual] purities and impurities are decrees of scripture and are not things that a human being’s rational thought would deduce. They are hukim. So to, the immersion in purifying waters in order to achieve purification from impurities is among the hukim. For tum’a (impurity) is not mud or dirt that would wash away with water. The purification is tied to one’s thoughts. From this we can understand, that just as one aims one’s heart towards purity and is purified even though nothing has physically changed after having immersed in the water, so too when one intends to cleanse one’s soul from spiritual impurities such as negative thinking and poor attributes, once one determines in one’s heart to keep away from such things, and brings his soul into the waters of knowledge, he is purified.
Rambam points out that there are elements within us that we may deem “impure” that, nonetheless, do not manifest in a physical way. These may include certain drives that bring us to think in ways that we would rather not think. He suggests that to “purify” ourselves one can “determine in one’s heart to keep away.” Much of the human experience is a struggle. Often it is as though we incorporate two hearts and two minds into one being. There are things we are driven to do or thoughts that we have that, when examined on a meta level, we would rather not engage in. For example, we may feel jealousy towards someone or we may feel a strong desire for certain things. At the same time, we realize that engaging in these thoughts and feelings might have an adverse effect upon us. Rambam writes here that we have the capacity to be the masters of our own thoughts when we determine in our hearts to do so. We can immerse ourselves into the “waters of knowledge” and empower that mastery over our unwanted thoughts and drives.
This is a particularly meaningful lesson as we approach Pesah and begin thinking about our G-d given freedoms to choose what we wish to become in this life. Part of our real work to achieve higher levels of personal freedom on Pesah is to recognize that it is in our power to cleanse our hearts and minds and bring them into a healthy state of awareness. For to be truly free we must not only achieve a physical liberty of our actions, we must also achieve a mental and psychological freedom in which we become the masters of our thoughts and behaviors.
Rambam suggests that the remedy for this is a different kind of water — the waters of knowledge or the mei hada’at. Through immersing ourselves into a pool of knowledge, we awaken and begin to self-examine. We give strength to the part of our consciousness that looks at what we wish to do and determines its implications. Working from that state of mind, we can address whom we wish to be and what we must change about ourselves in order to achieve it. It is in such work that freedom is born.
Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck