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Chukat | "He Has Defiled My Temple"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Ari Mermelstein


The opening section of this week's parasha relates to the prohibition of entering the Temple in a ritually impure state. The Torah twice condemns a person guilty of this act as having "defiled the sanctuary of the Lord" (Bamidbar 19:13, 19:20). What is the significance of this description?

In general, we can speak of two categories of sin. The Torah often prohibits an act because of the severity of the act itself; eating leavened bread on Passover is forbidden because the Torah considers the act itself a repugnant one. There are other times when the Torah outlaws an act not because the act itself is a terrible one, but because its ramifications are so severe. It is to this latter category of sins which entering the Temple in an unclean state belongs. Although the Torah certainly considered the entrance itself as taboo, probably serious enough to deserve lashings, the severity of the act, as expressed by the punishment of excision (karet), is tied with the resulting defilement of the Temple. While in a strictly formal, halakhic sense, the air of the Temple can not acquire ritual impurity, nonetheless the entrance of an unclean person into the Temple "defiles the tabernacle." Thus, the Torah does not focus on the severity of the act itself, but rather on the metaphysical blemish it leaves on the Temple.

This view has several ramifications. The Rambam (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 3:16) states that someone who himself does not enter the Temple in an impure state, but rather places another impure item into it, receives karet as if he himself had entered the Temple while impure. Thus, it is clear that the sin is primarily connected to the consequences, and therefore applies even when one is responsible for those consequences without having entered the Temple at all.

The concept of defilement of the Temple appears elsewhere, outside of the world of ritual impurity. In describing the prohibition for a priest with a blemish to work in the Temple, the Torah (Vayikra 21:23) justifies his exclusion by explaining "that he profane not my holy places." Again, we see the focus of the sin is not on the act itself, but rather on the ramifications.

This concept arises elsewhere as well. The Torah bans the Molekh ritual "because he has given of his seed to Molekh, to defile My sanctuary" (Vayikra 20:3). What is the connection between the Molekh ritual and defilement of the Temple? It is safe to assume that the ritual was not performed in the Temple itself. Rashi (Vayikra 20:3) was troubled by this question and explained that the reference to the Temple in that context was really to "the Congregation of Israel, which is holy." Thus, the Molekh ritual, performed in public, has a deleterious effect on society at large. The Congregation of Israel, like its Temple of worship, is a sacred entity whose holiness is defiled by the sins of the people who comprise it.

The Kuzari glorified man as a "mikdash me'at" - the embodiment of the Temple itself; like the Temple, man is not immune to the effects of wrongdoing. A person must know that his actions, for good and bad, leave their mark. Some Rishonim give expression to this concept when they remark that the consumption of foods forbidden by the Torah dulls the intelligence. We need not necessarily understand that our actions have physiological consequences, but rather that on some metaphysical level, our deeds can either bolster the world we try and build for ourselves, or, God forbid, destroy it.

There are two different approaches which we can take to sin. One approach is to isolate each sin as an independent entity, an unintentional slip, whose impact is not felt. Such an approach allows us to leave our misdeeds behind us, looking forward to the potential which each new day represents. However, this approach is antithetical to developing ourselves as benei Torah. We must regard our entire existence, all of our service of God, as an organic unit, which in the wake of a wrong turn becomes tarnished. We don't have the luxury of isolating our acts and ignoring their importance in the larger picture.

This notion of our acts having broad ramifications is logical; the mishna (Avot 4:2) expresses this in noting that "one mitzva leads to another mitzva, and one sin leads to another sin." However, even if a person insures that his misdeeds do not have practical consequences, on some metaphysical level, his world does not escape untarnished. This is the message of "he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord," which we must internalize and act upon.

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat chukat 5757.)

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