The mishna that opened yesterday’s daf yomi, Menachot 25, teaches that the tzitz, the gold headband that was worn by the Kohen Gadol, allows tamei sacrifices to be accepted and valid. When the matir – the part of the sacrifice that, when offered on the altar, makes them valid, i.e., the blood for animal sacrifices and the kometz, the handbreadth for minachot – is tamei, then it cannot be offered on the altar and the sacrifice will be invalid. Nevertheless, if it is offered when tamei, the tzitz makes the sacrifice acceptable. It is meratzeh, makes the sacrifice “desired” and accepted by God.
The mishna however goes on to teach that the tzitz only operates to address the problem of tumah. If any other invalidity adheres to the sacrifice’s matir – if it was taken out of the Temple, or was piggul, or any other problem, then the tzitz is innefectual and the sacrifice remains invalid even if the matir is offered.
Why is this? Why is special about tumuah?
The Gemara addresses this question, and states that we can derive this from the verse: “And Aharon shall bear for the sin of the sacrifices… and it shall be on his forehead constantly, to be acceptable for them before God.” (Shemot 28:38). This verse teaches, says the Gemara, that the tzitz can only be effective by those things which can be considered in some situations to be li’ratzon. This excludes a whole list of invalidities which the Torah teaches elsewhere are never acceptable (piggul, machshavat chutz limkomo, and animals with blemishes). The invalidity of yotzei, a sacrifice which was brought outside the Temple, also cannot be included, because the verse states “before God,” and could not refer to this invalidity which occurred because the sacrifice was taken away from the Temple, away from the presence of God. Thus, concludes the Gemara, the only invalidity which is sometimes acceptable, and which occurs “before God,” is that of tumah, which – as we know – is overriden for fixed-time sacrifices when the majority of the people are tamei – tumah hutrah bi’tzibbur.
It is worth reflecting on why, of all things, the tzitz is effective specifically, and only, for the invalidity of tumah. We learn this law from a verse – but what is the reason behind it? In a similar vein, we may ask why the only invalidity that is overridden at the communal level is that of tumah. If there is a need to bring fixed-time sacrifices regardless of problems, then why are not other invalidities overridden?
The answer, I believe, relates to the very nature of the Temple, of God choosing to make God’s Presence dwell among the People of Israel. On the one hand, the antithesis of kedusha and of God’s presence is tumah, impurity, and this is indeed the primary halakhic significance of tumah – it cannot come in contact with sanctified things (sacrifices, terumah, etc.) and if it does it invalidates them; the most severe type – the tumah of a dead body – cannot be brought in contact with sanctified people, the Kohanim; and it cannot be brought into the sanctified space, the Beit HaMikdash. Thus, one of the primary responsibilities of the Kohanim and certainly, following parashat Korach, the Leviim, was to protect the Mikdash from tumah (see Bamidbar 18). Thus, the Torah, right after the inauguration of the Kohanim, charges the Kohanim to distinguish between the holy and the profane, and the tamei and tahor (Vayikra 10:8-11) and devotes itself, over many chapters, to instructing the Kohanim about all the laws of tumah and taharah (Vayikra, chapters 11-15). And when, in the opening of Bamidbar, the camps are set up around the Mishkan, the Torah commands the People to send outside of the camp all those who are tamei (Bamidbar 5:1-4), and emphasizes the need to keep tumah away from the Divine presence (verse 3, and see also Bamidbar 35:34):
ולא יטמאו את מחניהם אשר אני שוכן בתוכם
And they shall not impurify their camps which I dwell in their midst.
So on the one hand, tumah is the antithesis of kedusha, and having a Mikdash in our midst creates a heavy demand that we do everything in our ability to keep tumah at bay. The problem is, that because we are not God, because we are human, tumah is an inevitable part of our lives. This is certainly true terms of the ritual tumah that we have been discussing – animals die, people die, women give birth to children, women menstruate, men have seminal emissions – tumah is encountered every day. And perhaps more significantly, not only is this true about the classic “ritual” tumah, but it is also true about the tumah that is a result of sin. The Torah regularly refers to the tumah created by sin, and this seems to be more than just a metaphor. Our sin impurifies our environment, and more than that, impurifies the Temple and God’s Presence that is among us.
If the above is true, and if tumah and sin are an inevitable consequence of our human existence, how can God continue to dwell among us? This powerful, pressing question seems to have been exactly what was at stake when Moshe beseeched God, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to continue to dwell among the Children of Israel. God had said that this was impossible: “And God said to Moshe, say to the Children of Israel: You are a stiff-necked people; If I were to enter into your midst for even one moment, I would destroy you…:” (Shemot 33:5). Moshe entreats God not to abandon the people, and to continue to dwell among them, and God relents: “But how will it be known that I have found favor in your eyes, is it not by Your going in our midst… And God said to Moshe, even this thing that you ask for I will do, because you have found favor in My eyes and I have known you by name” (Shemot 33:16-17).
So God agrees to dwell among us, although sin and tumah are inevitable. But how is this possible? If tumah is the antithesis of Mikdash, how does the Mikdash survive among the human, fallible Israel? The answer to this is that God has allowed it to be so. We must do all we can to keep tumah at bay, but even when we don’t, God continues to dwell among us. This is what is both acknowledged and addressed by the Yom Kippur avodah. After all the laws of tumah, the Torah commands Aharon in the Yom Kippur avodah, the purpose of which is to “atone for the Sanctuary from the tumot of the Children of Israel.” Yom Kippur atones for sin, but also cleanses the Temple from tumah. God has given us this day not only to allow us to be forgiven and to start fresh, but also to cleanse the Temple and to allow God Godself to continue to dwell among us. And hence, this verse of cleansing the Temple ends with an acknowledgement of the innevitability of tumah:
וכן יעשה לאהל מועד השוכן אתם בתוך טומאותם
And so he shall do to the Tent of Meeting that dwells in their midst, in the midst of their impurity
Of all the verses that speak about God dwelling (שכן) among the Children of Israel, this is the only verse that states not that as a result tumah must be kept at a distance, but rather that as a result, despite our best efforts, tumah will always be present to some degree. And this acknowledgement comes exactly in the section of the Torah that speaks to how it can be tolerated – because God has agreed to tolerate it, God has accepted our humanity, and, to make the tumah manageable, God has given us a rite to cleanse the Temple and start over each year.
This, then, is why of all things tumah can be overridden. Tumah is the one invalidity of sacrifices that is both the prime invalidity, but also the inevitable one. It is the invalidity that God has agreed to tolerate, because it is part of being human, and thus the necessary cost of the Divine dwelling among human beings – “which dwells among them, in the midst of their impurity.” When the tumah is communal and inescapable, it can be bracketed and pushed aside – tumah hutra bi’tzibbur. And even when the tumah occurs at a local, individual level, and may have been escapable, once the korban is offered, the korban will be accepted. We are not allowed to offer such a korban – we must avoid tumah, but if we do offer it, God is prepared to tolerate tumah once it is a done deed.
Of course, we cannot allow this Divine tolerance to undermine our awareness of God’s presence. If tumah becomes too much of the norm, then the place will no longer be one of kedusha. This is why it is the tzitz that allows the tumah to be be tolerated. The tzitz, with the words kodesh la’Hashem, Holy to God, worn on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, tamid, continually, is a symbol of the continual consciousness of the Divine Presence. If in the presence of tumah the consciousness of the Divine Presence remains firm, then the tumah will be tolerated. This is an invalidity which, unlike yotzei, occurs in the Temple, lifnei HaShem, and is counteracted exactly because the awareness of lifnei HaShem remains unwavering.
The tzitz operates on tumah, because God accepts that tumah is an inevitable part of human existence. In its essence it is the very thing that distances us from God, but if we work to keep God in the forefront of our consciousness, to have kodesh la’Hashem inscribed on our forehead, then this tumah will be tolerated, and God will be close to us despite our tumah. הציץ מרצה על הטומאה. Who dwells among with them, despite their impurity.