Separation and Reunion by Miriam Biber
Separation and Reunion by Miriam Biber

Volume 2 , Issue 3

Several months ago, in a column which appeared in these pages, I had the occasion to discuss the nature and meaning of the monthly separation which occurs between husband and wife as a result of the Jewish laws of family purity. At that time, I made an analogy between the process of separation and reunion which occurs between wife and husband and the cycle of exile and redemption which has characterized the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Since that time, I have had occasion to reflect upon this analogy in some greater detail, and inasmuch as it has been the source of so me misunderstanding, I felt itwould be helpful to share these further reflections with my readers.

The major problem appears to be that the exile from God has traditionally been understood to be the result of the Jewish people's sin. On the other hand, menstruation is a natural biological process over which women have no control. Did I, therefore, intentionally or unintentionally imply that conjugal separation, like exile from God, is punishment, and menstruation is a species of sin?

Certainly not. Let it be stated clearly and emphatically from the outset that the separation associated with a women's menstrual cycle is in no way connected to or related to sin. Attachment to sin is a result of a person's moral actions, whereas the menstrual cycle occurs as a result of a predictable biological time clock. The estrangement from God associated with sin is completely independent of the separation associated with a woman's menstrual cycle. This autonomy is obvious. A woman can sin or conversely do a Mitzvah at any point in her cycle.Her capacity to sin or refrain from sin is therefore unrelatedto the time of her period. Similarly her reunion with her husband is not a reward for doing mitzvot. The two processes are not intertwined.

At this point some concepts need to be defined, which will enable us to better understand the analogy between conjugal separation and reunion, and the separation and reunion which occurs between God and the Jewish people.

The sedra Chukat discusses the laws pertaining to someone who has come in contact with a dead person and states that ?he that touches the dead, even any man's dead body, shall be tumah (spiritually impure) for seven days? (Numbers:19:11).Similarly a few verses later the Torah tells us that ?when a man dies in a tent, everyone that comes into the tent and everything that is in the tent shall be tumah seven days (Numbers: 19:14).? Although the halakhic implications of these laws are less stringent in our times, since the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) is not functioning, we can still derive the Torah's association of death with impurity and life with purity or holiness.

Using the same concepts of spiritual purity and impurity, we can now see that the process of separation and reunion between a husband and wife corresponds to the woman's potential to produce life. After a woman completes her period and is in the middle of her cycle, she possesses a tremendous degree of holiness since she carries the potential to create a life. As we have just discussed, life is associated with holiness. Therefore, this stage of the cycle is associated with tahara, or spiritual purity. Conversely, if the month passes and she loses that opportunity to create life, her level of spiritual purity changes to that of tumah or spiritual impurity. Relative to the holiness she possessed when she had the potential to give life, she is now on a lower spiritual level. We see that this concept is consistent with the laws regarding contact with a dead person as discussed earlier. The alternation between degrees of holiness is a built in part of the monthly cycle which is unrelated to a person's moral actions.

Let us now contrast the cycles of tumah and tahara associated with a woman's menstrual cycle, to the separation and closeness produced by a person's actions. When a Jew does a mitzvah, she becomes more attached to God and simultaneously brings about the revelation of a greater level of holiness. Conversely, when a person attaches herself to sin, she is creating a concealment of Godliness in the world and is, so to speak, pushing God's presence away. Thus, we can see that a person has the power to achieve a greater closeness to God, or conversely remove herself from God, through her individual actions. This is the type of closeness or estrangement which the Torah refers to in the verse, ?Ihave set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life.?(Deuteronomy Chapter 30) This closeness achieved through choosing life is a result of a person's actions and is distinguished from the natural alternation of holiness and less holiness which occurs during a woman's cycle.

Alternating Cycles of Holiness

Now let us take a look at a Jew's daily life, tosee how these concepts are applied on that level. When God created the world, He provided alternating cycles of more and less holiness which are reflected in a Jew's behavior. More specifically, we see this in the daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness. Upon rising from sleep, we wash our hands to remove the spiritual impurity with sleep since the Sages tell us that when one sleeps, one is considered 1/60th dead. The hand- washing, is, therefore, not a punishment for sin, but a way of removing the spiritual impurity brought on by sleep. If the impurity associated with sleep was a result of sin, God would be punishing us for something we have no control over. Similarly we find the same alternating cycles of less holiness and more holiness when comparing thesix weekdays to Shabbat. As it states in Genesis 2,?And God finished on the seventh day His work which He had made ... And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because He rested from all his work which God in creating had made.? Indicative of that extra holiness is the fact that on Shabbat we spend more time in spiritual activities such as prayer and study. We see yet another example in the yearly calendar. During the months of Tishrei and Elul, God makes Himself more available, so-to-speak, for Jews to reattach themselves to God. Once again this is reflected in more intensified and longer prayers.

Therefore, we see at least three examples where God's closeness or distance to a Jew is unrelated to an individual's moral actions. Within certain limits, a person, or the Jewish people as a whole, clearly has free choice which influences how close she is to God. However, the built-in cycles of holiness define the limits of this relationship.

Closeness Not Dependant on Action

We find the same process occurring when discussing the relationship between God and the Jewish nation as a whole. We find that there have been times when God has shown an extra closeness to the Jewish people regardless of their actions. For example, when it was time to redeem the Jews from Egypt, Rashi explains (Exodus: 12:6) that Hashem gave the Jews two mitzvot to perform, that of circumcision and offering of the Paschal lamb. Rashi explains how God wanted to take the Jews out of Egypt because it was time to fulfill the oath he had made to Avraham, to redeem the Jewish people. Hence God decided to redeem the people in spite of the fact that they did not have the spiritual merit. Because He decided to redeem the people, He then gave them the mitzvot to provide them with the merit. Thus we see that God's closeness to (and also distance from) the Jewish people is not always dependent on their actions.

The next logical question is why would God create such a system? Why isn't our closeness to God only dependent on our actions? Why did God create cycles of holiness which are out of our control? There is a well known expression in Chasidut, ?Every descent is for the purpose of a greater ascent.? Therefore, a separation between a husband and wife will create a greater longing for a reunion which ultimately can result in the revelation of greater Godliness through the creation of life. Similarly, the toil of the six weekdays creates in a Jew the longing for the closeness to God achieved on a Shabbat. If God only gave us Shabbat, we would not appreciate the closeness and sanctity it provides. It is only the distance we experience during the weekdays, that enables us to appreciate the holiness of Shabbat. So too, in terms of the historical cycles of God and the Jewish people, the periods of Exile, including the current one, are not God forbid, an end in and of themselves. The Exile is only a stimulus to provide a longing for redemption. Asit says in Psalms, ?My soul thirsts for You.? Without the separation from God, we would not have a longing for redemption. Thus the concealment of Godliness experienced during the times of Exile is only a preparation for the ultimate redemption. We must use the opportunities we have now to refine ourselves so that when the Redemption occurs and we reunite ourselves with God, it will be a complete and total process.

All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011