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Pure Intentions

Written by Howard Jackson

For on this day (Yom Kippur) He will forgive you, to purify you; that you will be purified from all your sins before God (VaYikra 16:30).
Why is the purification mentioned twice? On the one hand, “to purify you” implies that God actively does the purifying; whereas “you will be purified” implies that we will purify ourselves! Rabbi Akiva said in Gemara Yoma 85b: Happy are you Israel! Before Whom are you purified? Who purifies you? Your father in Heaven! As the verse says “then I will sprinkle pure water upon you and you shall be purified” (Ezekiel 36:25) and another verse states “The hope (Mikvah) of Israel is God!” (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a Mikvah (ritual bath) purifies the impure, so God purifies the Jewish People. Why did Rabbi Akiva ask his question twice? And why did he answer his question with two verses that appear to be saying the same thing? Rabbi Yehoshua Heller explains that there are two types of purification process: sprinkling the pure water, whereby the impure person stands still and the purification comes to him; and Mikvah of water, whereby the impure person comes towards the purification. In a similar vein, there are two types of people who perform the act of Teshuvah (returning to God): a person with a weak inner feeling towards Teshuvah needs God to actively help him return to purity; and a person with a strong inner feeling towards Teshuvah. He goes to the Mikvah without much prompting.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, quoting from a public address from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adds that sprinkling the pure water, when mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, removes the most severe form of impurity, Tumat Meit, the impurity which results from contact with a dead body. This purification process will be necessary for the person who is seemingly so disconnected from God, the source of life, that he appears to be spiritually “dead”. Rabbi Akiva’s question “Who purifies you?” refers to this person who needs God to actively help him return, hence the answer “then I will sprinkle pure water upon you and you shall be purified”. In contrast, the question “Before Whom are you purified?” refers to the person with a strong inner feeling towards Teshuvah, hence the answer “The hope (Mikvah) of Israel is God!”
Rabbi Heppenheimer suggests that the reason Rabbi Akiva answers his second question first is because this case reflects the deep-down unassailable relationship between G.od and the Jewish people – a parent-to-child relationship that not even sin can destroy. A further nuance in Rabbi Akiva’s words is the phrase “a Mikvah purifies the impure”. Who else should a Mikvah purify? Surely not those who are already pure! The answer is that it is possible to be impure from several sources at the same time, only some of which may be removable by immersion in a Mikvah. A Mikvah cannot purify someone from the impurity resulting from contact with a dead body, so a person can exit the Mikvah purified of one impurity while still carrying others. In other words, the Mikvah has “purified the impure”.
Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that Teshuvah, like immersion, is not an “all-or-nothing” deal. God does accept a Teshuvah-by-parts, as long as it is sincere! “Just as a Mikvah purifies the impure” – even if afterwards he is still impure in other ways – “so God purifies the Jewish People” to the extent that we seek that purity by doing Teshuvah.

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