(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including…tohorah, purification…
(Genesis 26:24) …vayavo eileha vatahar lo… (Judah mistakes his disguised daughter-in-law, Tamar, for a prostitute) …and he slept with her and she conceived by him…
Our congregation has a wonderfully dedicated group of people who attend to the needs of the dead. They are called the Chevrah Kaddishah, the Sacred Society, and they prepare the corpse for burial. The ritual of preparation is called taharah, purification, and it involves lovingly washing the body and dressing it in a simple shroud. Many of our Chevrah members have spoken and written movingly of the deeply spiritual experience of making these preparations, and how much they have learned through the entirely non-verbal process of taharah.
Joseph, Jacob's beloved son, finds himself an "unpurified" corpse in this week's Torah portion. He is stripped of his tunic and dropped into a pit in the wilderness by his brothers, who have come to hate him for his arrogant ways and the favoritism of their father. The word for "pit" in the Torah is bor, which can also mean "grave." Joseph's life seems forfeit; in fact, Jacob is led to believe he is dead when the brothers present a blood-soiled tunic. Blood is another indicator of the need to ritually purify.
But the verse quoted above has nothing to do with Joseph per se. In fact, it has nothing to do with tohorah. Tamar, the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, tricks him into sex with her to secure an heir for her late husband's estate. (Even in ancient times, the desire of some unmarried women to have children was not dependent on finding a husband!) "He slept with her and she conceived (vatahar) by him," says the text. Vatahar is from an entirely different root than tohorah and is related only by sound. But because sex and purification are so connected in our tradition, the non-literal meanings resonate one with the other.
Human intimacy is promoted by our tradition with only one requirement: it must be sacred intimacy. All mutually agreeable forms of intimacy are permitted between husband and wife as long as they are not harmful. However, during the days of a woman's menstruation and for a week after, no such intimacy is permitted. The woman must visit a mikvah to go through a ritual "purification," symbolically washing away the blood that has flowed involuntarily from within.
Illicit sex occurs twice in this portion. Tamar's liaison with Judah is followed by the story of Mrs. Potiphar's attempted affair with Joseph in Egypt. In both cases, the sex involved moves the story forward. In the case of Tamar, her offspring, Peretz, becomes the ancestor of Boaz, grandfather of King David and model for the Messiah. Through the example of David, all of humanity will be purified of the pollutants that separate us from God.
Joseph suffers for his rejection of Mrs. Potiphar, but he becomes purified as well by his stint in jail. Fallen from grace, the surroundings that remind him of his dependence on God seem to inspire in him a new sense of humility. Had he learned the lesson sooner, he would not have been thrown into the pit.
Ritual purification is often dismissed as so much superstition. Yet, those who fulfill this mitzvah – whether in preparing a corpse or as an observance of their own sacred intimate conduct – will attest to its power in bringing them closer to an understanding of their relationship with God.
And that is Torah.
Here's how to experience tohorah: visit a mikvah. Male or female, the immersion will give you a sense of rebirth. Also, you may volunteer to be part of the Chevrah Kaddisha.