image of an outdoor hand-washing station that has the blessing for washing hands in hebrew
Photo of a hand-washing station at a Jewish cemetery in Marrakesh, by David Berkowitz via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pursuit of Purity

Ancient rules regarding priestly purity offer guidance for moments when weighing different kinds of needs against each other proves difficult.

This week’s Torah portion opens with rules regarding the priests, who were required to maintain a state of ritual purity in order to offer sacrifices in the ancient Temple. Maintaining this status required adhering to strict rules and regulations, including refraining from contact with dead bodies — the one exception being tending to deceased loved ones.

The balance between these two responsibilities — maintaining personal purity to perform sacrificial duties and fulfilling sacred obligations to family — is a microcosm of the challenge of balancing individual needs with those of the larger community. This tension is more than a theoretical construct. It can pierce through one’s very sense of equilibrium. How do we navigate when pulled in two purposeful, but divergent directions? That question is often faced by caregivers of every kind, torn between their sense of duty to others and the obligation to care for themselves and their families.

This can be a particularly acute challenge for religious leaders, who commonly neglect their own needs in their support of others. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People who died last month, once remarked that as a pulpit rabbi, he would often run from his family dinner table to remind other parents to spend more time with their children. As a preacher’s kid who chose the rabbinate myself, I know all too well that no matter how centered a person may be, in an attempt to be seen by one’s community as a “good rabbi,” by one’s children as a good father, and to take care of one’s self — something has to give. Yes, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “happiness is the certainty of being necessary,” but that is a complicated kind of happiness. No one can meet all these needs consistently. 

In this light, it is possible to imagine that the priests’ exclusion from the general obligation to tend to the dead was a deep way of tending to life itself. The very purpose of the sacrificial system was preserving the collective health of the nation by sustaining the nexus between the community and God. Understood this way, priestly purity was a communal need, without which the common good would be placed at risk. But the community’s need could not deny the priest’s visceral need to care for their immediate relatives. Sometimes, the priest’s personal obligations outweighed their duty to the community. 

The ancient system of priestly boundaries offers guidance for moments when weighing different kinds of needs against each other proves difficult. The priest’s role was predefined, as was the biblical hierarchy of obligations: the general obligation to care for the dead was suspended (prohibited, actually) in favor of the communal necessity for priestly service. But a priest’s obligation to kin overruled the exemption. 

In our day, such guidance proves less useful. It is natural for family obligations and work expectations to compete for one’s attention, and it’s inevitable that sometimes the need for self-care competes with both. As opposed to the categorical clarity of the biblical text, weighing these kinds of competing priorities in today’s world can be a truly daunting task, and can only be done on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it is work that gets the most attention. Sometimes family obligations preclude the highest professional performance. And sometimes, in order to truly be alive, taking care of ourselves has to come first. 

Just as we are called by our relationships with others, we are also called to be in relationship with ourselves. The various names of biblical sacrifices can be helpful here as well: the shelamim (wholeness) offering nourishes the one who offered it, whereas the olah (ascent) offering was completely devoured by fire. In other words, we can — and must — learn to be mindful practitioners if we wish to avoid burnout, consuming ourselves on the altar of unending demands. We can forgive ourselves for only meeting most of our obligations most of the time, knowing that by taking good care of ourselves, we’ll be strong enough to keep at it.

Ultimately, the challenge of balancing individual needs with those of the larger community is an ongoing one. It requires constant reflection and self-examination, as well as a willingness to sometimes put the needs of others above our own — and sometimes not to. But if we can find a way to strike this balance, we can create a world in which individual freedom and interdependence are both valued, and the needs of the larger community are met by members who strive to be good to one another and to themselves.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on May. 6, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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