The Pasuk in this week’s Parsha states, VeHizhartem Et Bnei Yisrael MiTumatam, VeLo Yamutu BeTumatam BeTamam Et Mishkani Asher Betocham.” “Separate the children of Israel from their Tumah so that they do not die from their Tumah when they defile the Mishkan in their midst.” This Pasuk does not prohibit becoming Tamei, but does forbid entering the Mishkan to encounter God’s Shechina in the state of impurity.
What is wrong with entering in a state of impurity? What does Tumah represent that is antithetical to service in the Mishkan?
The traditional explanation is that Tumah is conferred on a person or thing which has experienced a loss of life or life potential. This explains why a corpse is the Avi Avot HaTumah (the “father” of all Tumah), and possibly why Niddah, Baal Keri, Zav and Zavah all posses some level of impurity. In each case, the blood or seminal emission had life creating potential that was unrealized. Since a person who has recently come into contact with death or loss of life potential is in a state that is inappropriate for intense service of Hashem, who is the Source of all life, his status as Tamei forces him to avoid entering the Mishkan.
The Ramban extends this notion to the Tumah of Tzaraat as well. Tzaraat is an indication of a serious spiritual flaw in an otherwise holy person, and is reflective of the departure of Hashem’s Shechina and Hashgacha (divine providence) from that person. The departure of that spirit is similar to the loss of life and results in Tumah. One might add that skin turning white as a result of Tzaraat is reminiscent of death when the body turns white.
The famous question on this approach is why a woman who gives birth is Tamei. Certainly childbirth is considered a moment of life creation, not the loss of life! Why does she become Tamei after childbirth?
Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin offers a creative answer to this difficult question, forcing us to rethink our premise. He explains that death does not create Tumah simply because Hashem is the Source of life, but because Hashem is beyond the notions of time and space. Death reminds us of the limits of physical existence bound by time and space, limits which have no bearing on HaKadosh Baruch Hu, who is eternal. If death, which is the end of physical life, is antithetical to God’s nature, then birth, which is the beginning of physical life, is also antithetical to it. Though birth is a happier occasion for us to experience, it is no less a function of the limits of our existence in the physical, time-bound universe. As a result, childbirth, just like death, confers a status of Tumah upon the mother.