Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are discussing the finer details of the laws of tumah – ritual impurity – when suddenly Beit Hillel offer a tremendous principle:
An implement or instrument cannot make a man impure.
Impurity comes from death, or from an illness or creature reminiscent of death, it is a deeply human phenomenon. A man may make his objects tameh – impure – he may emanate the feel and sense and smell of death, he may create a surrounding atmosphere and environment which are infected by his negative energy, by the fear and deadness which have touched his soul.
But the flow cannot operate in reverse. A tool is just a tool, a dish is a dish and a bucket is a bucket. Their emotional range does not compare to that of man or woman, nor even to a child or animal. They can pick up an atmosphere, whether through the fundamentals of their design or through their association and intimacy with a person, but they cannot reach out and change the state of a man.
They are objects, not events, and it is an event, something alive which changes the state of our spirit.
They are, by definition, instrumental, and they may help or hinder us as we attempt to get on with the tasks in front of us. But if our soul should suddenly feel heavy, if our spirit should suddenly flag, then it is not really the object’s fault, it is something else. It is perhaps something we haven’t yet noticed, a new fear which has partially emerged on our horizon, trouble in a relationship that we haven’t become fully conscious of, some part of our life which is no longer fitting into place so well.
These are the things that affect us. We may mistakenly think that it is the state of our objects, of our possessions; we may ascribe them – or our lack of them – magical and redemptive powers, to believe that our next material acquisition will be the one which really makes the difference, which really changes the quality of our lives. We all fall prey to this at one point or another, we are living in materially seductive times.
But this is what Hillel are coming to teach us, that the object, the tool, do not change the spirit. They cannot shift the weight that is burdening us, they cannot re-ignite the spark that is missing from our fire.
Man’s spiritual condition is a deeply interior affair. ‘Interior’ isn’t even a particularly good word, it has some merit as a metaphor, but it leaves the impression that our feelings can be located somewhere, that they have a physical location, and hence, perhaps, a physical constitution, a physical cause.
This is of course not the case. Where do we feel fear, angst, joy or liberation? We do not feel them in a place, we simply feel them, they become our totality; they become the definition of what it means to be us. They become our being.
Nevertheless, the Talmud runs with the imagery of the interior and teaches us another profound lesson:
A vessel whose outer side is rendered ritually impure by liquid, only the outer side of the vessel is impure…but if the inside of a vessel becomes ritually impure, the whole of it, its entire being, becomes impure.
Our personality has many level: we can exist on the surface, we can spend days, months or even years without re-visiting our depths, without confronting the harder questions of our existence, some of the quieter feelings which might guide us in life.
And make no mistake, these outer levels of the personality are rich and multi-talented, they can store some of our greatest powers and bequeath us a tremendous energy. If it was obvious that we were living on the surface, that we were missing out on something subtler, something more sacred and significant, then we wouldn’t do it. We’re not stupid, after all.
And from this perspective, this teaching starts to offer us a vital beam of illuminating hope. It may be that your outside has become impure, has become sullied and filthy; it may be that your energy has caused you to become lost and adrift, that your talents have serviced you in all of the wrong ways.
But this is just the outside, it has not contaminated your depths; there is something still in you which is untainted, which is clean and bright and pure.
And for as long as that inner light is still alive, for as long as the cold winter winds have failed to blow it out, you may still find the way, you may still recover and feel profoundly once more.
The inner is not so easily infected, our depths stay hidden for good reason: they know that to expose themselves easily would be to run an extremely grave risk.
On Yom Kippur we attempt to renew and purify these outer layers, we ask for Divine assistance to “cleanse and remove our sins and transgressions”.
And we are given assurance that the Day itself will help us, will change us. I doubt that a day alone could ever change us, without any input or effort from our side. But I know and believe with all of my heart that this is a Day like no other day, and that the possibilities for change that it opens up in front of us would not be readily available at any other point in the year. It is singular and unique, it has an incomparable atmosphere and dynamic, a rich tapestry of emotional complexity that is all of its own.
May the day help us to rediscover our purity, may we be renewed with completeness of heart, authenticity of purpose, integrity of being and a range of feeling which is warm, empathic and open.
Gmar Chatima Tova, may it be sealed decisively for us on The Day.