Purity of Heart and Soul

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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In this week’s parshah, we encounter the parah adumah, whose ashes after burning were mixed with water from a flowing spring and then sprinkled with a hyssop upon those who had become impure by contact with the dead (tamei meis).  This ritual impurity rendered one unable to enter the Beis HaMikdash or eat from its sacrifices and aptly allegorizes the faulty character traits and false ideologies which sully man’s soul and render him incapable of drawing close to Hashem.  In the famous teaching of Rebbe Akvia, we learn:


אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מטהרין מי מטהר אתכם אביכם שבשמים שנאמר "וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם", ואומר "מקוה ישראל ה'," מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל.


Fortunate are you, Yisrael!  Before Whom do you purify yourselves, and Who purifies you?  Your Father in Heaven!  As it is written, “I shall toss upon you pure waters, and purify you,”[1] and elsewhere, “Hashem is the mikvah of Yisrael.”[2]  Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so, too, does HaKadosh Baruch Hu purify Yisrael.[3]


Expanding on this concept, the Rambam writes:


דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירות הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעתו והרי הן מכלל החוקים, וכן הטבילה מן הטומאות מכלל החוקים הוא שאין הטומאה טיט או צואה שתעבור במים אלא גזירת הכתוב היא והדבר תלוי בכוונת הלב, ולפיכך אמרו חכמים טבל ולא הוחזק כאילו לא טבל, ואף על פי כן רמז יש בדבר כשם שהמכוין לבו לטהר כיון שטבל טהור ואף על פי שלא נתחדש בגופו דבר כך המכוין לבו לטהר נפשו מטומאות הנפשות שהן מחשבות האון ודעות הרעות, כיון שהסכים בלבו לפרוש מאותן העצות והביא נפשו במי הדעת טהור, הרי הוא אומר וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם מכל טומאותיכם ומכל גלוליכם אטהר אתכם, השם ברחמיו הרבים מכל חטא עון ואשמה יטהרנו אמן.


The laws of ritual purity and impurity are clearly statutes of the Torah, “chukim, which human wisdom cannot possibly fathom.  The same is true of the purifying influence of the mikvah.  Ritual impurity involves no physical mud or filth washable with water.  Rather, [the purifying influence of the mikvah] is nothing other than a dictate of the Torah, and it[s effectiveness] depends upon one’s intentions [when immersing].  Our Sages therefore warn that if a person immerses with no special intention, it is considered as if he had not immersed at all.

Just as a person who focuses his heart on becoming pure emerges [physically] pure upon immersing [in a mikvah] (even though his body underwent no physical change), a person who focuses on purifying his soul from spiritual corruption – i.e. sinful thoughts and false ideologies – as soon as he resolves to reject such intuitions and immerses his mind in the pure waters of wisdom, behold, the verse states [regarding him]: “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you will be pure; from all your impurities and from all your abominations will I purify you.”[4] May Hashem, in His great mercy, purify us from all sin, iniquity and guilt. Amen.[5]


Physical impurity is the result of contact with outside agents, such as a dead body or the like.  One must then immerses one’s body in a mikvah with purity of intention and thereby cleanse his body of these influences.  However, there are spiritual forms of impurity, as the Rambam writes, which do not stem from outside agents.  Rather, they are the weeds of corruption that sprout from within.  Regarding this inner impurity, from which teshuvah is the only recourse, Rebbe Akiva exclaimed that it is Bnei Yisrael’s great fortune that our Father in Heaven helps us uproot the weeds of evil from our hearts and sprinkles upon us pure water to cleanse us from our sins.

A person who is physically impure is forbidden to enter the Beis HaMikdash or partake of its sacrifices.  However, there is no actual prohibition against physical impurity, nor is there an obligation to purify oneself from it.  This is not true of spiritual impurity.  Selfish character traits and false ideology are worse than any particular sin that a person might do, since they corrupt his character and drive him away from Hashem.  The ultimate height of closeness to Hashem towards which the Prophets and Sages aspired was figuratively called “purity,” which is achievable only by immersing the mind in the waters of wisdom, as the Rambam writes.




Regarding the purification process of the mikvah and the parah adumah, the Rambam writes:

הנה אין הבדל בין איש שלא נטמא לעולם במת ובין איש אשר נטמא כל ימיו ואחר כך טבל והזה עליו ג' וז', אלא שזה אשר הוזה עליו יותר גדול המדריגה בטהרה לפי שהפסוק כבר שפט עליו שהוא טהור.

There is no halachic advantage of one who never became impure over one who was impure for his entire life and then immersed in a mikvah and had the waters of parah adumah sprinkled upon on him on the third and seventh day.  In fact, one who was impure and was then purified by the waters of the parah adumah holds a higher level of purity, since the possuk from the Torah attests that he is pure.[6]


Here, the Rambam makes a subtle yet fascinating observation.  A person who had never been exposed to impurity cannot be considered “purified,” since for him, impurity was never an issue.  In contrast, a person who was exposed to impurity and then underwent the necessary purification process holds a higher level of purity, since the Torah addresses his status and details how he must regain his purity.  Upon completion of this process of purification, the Torah itself attests to his purity.

This distinction can also be applied in the realm of spiritual purification from bad character traits and false ideology in light of the following Gemara:


ואמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן כל הנביאים כולן לא נתנבאו אלא לבעלי תשובה אבל צדיקים גמורים עין לא ראתה אלהים זולתך.  ופליגא דרבי אבהו דאמר רבי אבהו מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין.

Rebbe Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rebbe Yochanan: All the prophets prophesied [future reward] solely with regard to the Ba’alei Teshuvah, but for the perfect Tzaddikim [an even greater reward awaits, of which it is written]: “No eye but Yours, Elokim, has seen it.”[7]

This contradicts Rebbe Avahu, who said that in the place of the Baalei Teshuvah, even the perfect Tzaddikim may not stand.[8]


The Rambam rules in accordance with Rebbe Avahu that the Baal Teshuvah is greater than the perfect Tzaddik, who has never sinned:


ואל ידמה אדם בעל תשובה שהוא מרוחק ממעלת הצדיקים מפני העונות והחטאות שעשה, אין הדבר כן אלא אהוב ונחמד הוא לפני הבורא כאילו לא חטא מעולם, ולא עוד אלא ששכרו הרבה שהרי טעם טעם החטא ופירש ממנו וכבש יצרו, אמרו חכמים מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין אין צדיקים גמורין יכולין לעמוד בו, כלומר מעלתן גדולה ממעלת אלו שלא חטאו מעולם מפני שהן כובשים יצרם יותר מהם.


The Baal Teshuvah should not imagine that he is far from the spiritual advantage of the Tzaddikim because of the sins he has committed.  This is not so.  He is beloved and cherished before the Creator, as if he had never sinned at all.  In fact, his reward is even greater, since he has experienced the taste of sin and abandoned it, thus subjugating his evil inclination.  Our Sages teach us that the place where Baalei Teshuvah are destined to stand is so high, that even perfect Tzaddikim cannot reach it.  In other words, they are even greater than those who had never sinned, since they made greater effort to subdue their inclination.[9]


Just as a person who cleansed himself from physical impurity is greater than one who was never impure at all, the same is true of a person who cleansed himself from guilt through the purifying waters of teshuvah.  He is even greater than the perfect Tzaddik, who never sinned at all.  Thus, the Rambam’s observation regarding physical purity beautifully parallels his ruling regarding the spiritual purity attained through teshuvah.



To regain one’s purity after having come in contact with a dead body, two steps are required.  The first stage must be performed by someone else, who sprinkles the ashes of the parah adumah mixed with flowing spring water on him.  The second stage he performs himself by immersing in a mikvah.  This parallels the teshuvah process which requires two stages.  The penitent must make his own effort to improve himself, and he must also beg Hashem to help him return.  David HaMelech prayed, “Cleanse me of my sins; purify me from my iniquities … Create for me a pure heart, Elokim, and renew a proper spirit in my breast.”[10]  Through incessant prayer, and constant self-improvement, David HaMelech finally merited to have his yetzer hara removed and replaced with a yetzer tov.[11]

The Midrash states as follows:

 למה היה דוד דומה, למי שהיה בידו מכה, ובא אצל הרופא ואמר הרופא אין אתה יכול להתרפאות, המכה היא גדולה, והדמים בידך מעט, אמר ליה בבקשה ממך קח לך כל מה שיש לי בזה, והשאר משלך, עשה עמי חסד ורחם עלי.

 וכן אמר דוד לפני הקב"ה חנני אלהים כחסדך, רחמן אתה וכרוב רחמיך מחה פשעי ... ממך הרפואה לפי שהמכה גדולה תן לי אספלנית גדולה, כדכתיב הרב כבסני מעוני.  מכאן אתה למד, כל מי שעובר עבירה כאילו מיטמא בנפש מת, ואין מזין עליו אלא באזוב, ואף דוד אמר כן תחטאני באזוב ואטהר ... מיכן אתה למד שכל מי שיודע שחטא, ומתפלל על החטא, ומתיירא ממנו, ונושא ונותן עם הקב"ה, שהקב"ה מוחל לו.

[In praying for forgiveness for his sins,] what did David resemble? A person who was afflicted and approached a doctor [for treatment].  The doctor said, “You cannot be healed; the affliction is great, and your means for payment are few.” He said to him, “Please, take all that I have, and let the remaining [treatment costs] come from you. Do me this kindness, and have mercy upon me!”

Similarly, David said before Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “‘Show me favor, O God, as befits Your kindness.’ [12]  You are merciful, so ‘according to Your great mercy, erase my sins.’[13] Recovery can only come from You. As my affliction is severe, provide me with a powerful remedy!” This is as it is written, ”[Abundantly] cleanse me from my iniquity[, and from my sins purify me (תחטאני),”[14] the word תחטאני referring to the sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah].  From here you may learn that anyone who has sinned is considered as if he has become impure by exposure to death.  He is can only be purified by having the ashes of the parah adumah sprinkled on him with a hyssop.  David, too, stated this: “Sprinkle me with a hyssop, and I shall be made pure.”[15]

From here you learn that anyone who knows he has sinned and then prays for forgiveness, fears [the effects of his sins], and discusses them with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will forgive him. [16]


David HaMelech prayed, “Sprinkle me with a hyssop, and I shall be made pure.  Cleanse me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”[17]  In the beginning of Maseches Negaim, we find a list of the different shades of white pertaining to the laws of tzara’as.  Among them, snow is listed as the lightest existing shade of white.  How, then, could David have prayed to be made even whiter than snow when there is nothing whiter?

White snow represents that which is pure and undefiled – the perfect Tzaddik who has never sinned.  Once a garment has been sullied, no matter how well it is washed, it will never get whiter than it was when it was new, and certainly not whiter than fresh snow.  One would think that the same  is true of the Baal Teshuvah.  No matter how much he strives to correct his ways, he will never surpass the perfect Tzaddik, who has never sinned at all.

While this is indeed true of the cleansing process of teshuvah that is within our power to effect, there is yet another stage of teshuvah which is beyond our ability to even fathom.  At that final stage, Hashem takes the sullied sinner and purifies him to such an extent that he is even greater than the perfect Tzaddik who has never sinned and even whiter than the freshly fallen snow.  Of this, Rebbe Akiva said:


Fortunate are you, Yisrael!  Before Whom do you purify yourselves, and Who purifies you?  Your Father in Heaven!  As it is written, “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you will be pure,”[18] and elsewhere, “Hashem is the mikvah of Yisrael.”[19]  Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so ,too, does HaKadosh Baruch Hu purify Yisrael.[20]


Rebbe Akiva referred to both stages of purification.  We must purify ourselves with our own teshuvah, just as the tamei meis must purify himself by immersion in a mikvah.  Then, Hashem grants us an even greater level of purity by sprinkling upon us the pure waters which raise us to the ultimate perfection of teshuvah, making us whiter than the unsullied snow and greater than the perfect Tzaddik who has never sinned.



[1] Yechezkel 36:25

[2] Yermiyah 17:13

[3] Yoma 85b

[4] Yechezkel 36:25

[5] Rambam, Hilchos Mikva’os 10:12

[6] Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Parah 3:3

[7] Yeshaya 64:3

[8] Berachos 34נ

[9] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 7:4.  In this ruling, the Rambam favors the opinion of Rebbe Avahu over that of Rebbe Yochanan.  The commentaries question the Rambam’s decision, since Rebbe Yochanan is generally considered a more influential opinion.

The Rugatchover Gaon, zt”l, suggests that the Rambam might have perceived evidence that Rebbe Avahu’s opinion was accepted by the Sages from the Gemara (Kiddushin 49b) which states that if a person marries a woman on condition that he is a perfect Tzaddik, the kiddushin is valid, even if it later emerges that he was in fact a villain.  The Gemara explains that perhaps he contemplated thoughts of teshuvah at the moment of the wedding.  Were we to accept Rebbe Yochanan’s opinion, this explanation would be incorrect.   The suitor claimed to be a perfect Tzaddik, one who is greater than a Baal Teshuvah according to Rebbe Yochanan; since he mislead her, the kiddushin should be invalid.  However, according to Rebbe Avahu, the kiddushin is indeed valid, since he claimed to be a perfect Tzaddik while, by virtue of his repentant thoughts, he was in fact a Baal Teshuvah, who is even greater.

The Rugatchover’s explanation is based on a version of the Gemara in which the suitor claimed to be a “perfect Tzaddik.”  However, the prevalent version of the Gemara reads that he claimed only to be a Tzaddik, not a “perfect Tzaddik.”  As such, there is no proof from here, since Rebbe Avahu and Rebbe Yochanan debated the status of a Baal Teshuvah in comparison to the “perfect Tzaddik,” not the ordinary Tzaddik, as the suitor claimed to be.

[10] Tehillim 51:4,12

[11] Avos D’Rebbe Nosson ch. 32

[12] Tehillim 51:3

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. 51:4

[15] ibid 51:9

[16] Midrash Tehillim, 51:2

[17] Tehillim 51:9

[18] Yechezkel 36:25

[19] Yermiyah 17:13

[20] Yoma 85b