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Pride and Purity

Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need - Khalil Gibran

Pride seems to be the most difficult virtue to master. It's certainly easy to feel. Just listen to parents screaming at the top of their lungs when their child kicks the ball toward the goal in a soccer game! And it's easy to exploit. The heroic speeches of leaders touting their accomplishments, especially around election time, are pride expressed as persuasion. Maybe the prescription, "less than you need" offers a helpful recipe for us to measure when and where the expression of pride is valid.

The Torah addresses a dimension of pride that uses the language of purity to convey its meaning. We're right in the middle of a complicated book, Leviticus, where the primary focus is upon the circumstances and fitness for bringing an offering (or sacrifice) to God. The marvelous fact that there are only three questions in the entire book (compared to nearly 100 in Genesis) would lead us to believe that questions are somehow a distraction to the work of sacred service. No one would want to read an IKEA instruction manual with a question included!

I think we get hung up on the inability to bring a sacrifice in our day and the terribly limiting circumstances of what the Torah defines as purity. I think definitions of purity are impossibly difficult, where even someone who does 'everything by the book' will still have doubt or uncertainty about unfamiliar circumstances.

Purity as a prerequisite of sacred worship exists in most religious traditions. Beyond the social dimensions or hygienic benefits of maintaining a certain form of bodily cleanliness, the book of Leviticus explores the spiritual dimensions of purity. The primary function of laws of purity isn’t to exclude an individual from participating in the ritual life of the community if they are not fit to make an offering. Rather, the quest for purity is to enable the individual seeker an unfettered chance to encounter YHVH.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue - Henri Matisse

In these chapters that we customarily read at this time of year, we learn from the outline for individual impurities (childbirth, menstruation, or unusual baldness), communal impurities (leprosy or other communicable diseases), and ultimately social impurities (forbidden relationships). None of these conditions, if you will, elicit questions of clarification or uncertain definitions of what disqualifies a person from participating in sacrificial worship. There is a presumption here that the experience of separation is a precursor to the closeness, even intimacy, found when a good question is shared. Our connection with the Divine is best expressed when we are pure hearted. We should strive to ask our questions with the same discipline.

The concept of impurity connotes a negative state of being. Impurity as the separating force for divine encounter is laden with a rejection by God that isn’t really present. The Torah takes great pain to outline the potentially disqualifying states of impurity so that the record can also prescribe the remedy. After thousands of years of studying a culture of worship that no longer exists in practice, seeking purity to encounter YHVH is a necessary dimension of religious continuity. The limits of our physicality may have expanded and contracted throughout the ages, but the commitment to stand unimpeded before some greater or ultimate source of life is affirmative. Indeed, it is the highest form of spiritual quest.

Pride, then, is the ability to make an offering with a full heart. Rather than judge the feeling in another (Who knows? Maybe putting trash into the receptacle is worthy of adulation and encouragement?!) we can judge ourselves that when we have less than we need, we can then share our blessings, our bounty, with others.

Judaism’s ability to record and perpetuate the concern for purity in these chapters deserves attention, despite the absence of questions along the way.

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