Parshas Shemini – Inner Space

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The abundance of advertisements for gyms, weight loss products, hair restoration drugs and cosmetic surgery testifies to contemporary citizens’ obsession with physical image. To be sure, many people seek to work out or lose weight out of health concerns, or have surgery to correct deviated septums. But many more, as the pitches evidence, just want more perfect abs or biceps or “better” noses.

After sufficient decades of living, it becomes apparent that our shapes and faces can only be adjusted so much. That comes as a shock to some, even a source of depression. What’s truly sad, though, isn’t the elusiveness of physical perfection but the silly quest for it.

The laws of tum’ah, or ritual defilement, are many and complex. But one of its basic rules is that a metal vessel can become defiled by contact with a contaminating material even if the source of defilement touches only its outer surface. An earthen vessel cannot contract tum’ah that way.

But if contaminating matter merely enters the inner space of an earthenware vessel, it defiles it even without contacting the inner surface itself. 

The Kotzker Rebbe explained that the reason for that distinction is that a metal vessel has inherent material value, whereas an earthenware one does not. And an earthenware vessel’s only value is in its “space” – in the fact that it can hold something

He went on to pithily observe that a human being is an “earthen vessel,” as the “original” human was made from the earth itself (Beraishis 2:7). 

And, like any earthenware vessel, the human is defined not by his physique but rather by what he can hold “within” him – his soul, which he affects with his actions, thoughts and words.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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