Gourmet chefs know how flavors retained in the walls of their cooking utensils can contaminate dishes. Cultures such as the Japanese, with highly developed taste senses, will often keep their utensils for specific foods and wash them up separately. We too are sensitive to flavor, but as the Nation of Hashem, we are more concerned about the pollutant flavors of Issur and Tumah (two different forms of negative spiritual energy that can attach to food and utensils) than we are about culinary contamination. Hashem teaches Benei Yisraelin this week’s Parsha, how to cleanse the utensils of Midyan of those spiritual contaminants to make them fit for Jewish usage. These laws are the foundation of our laws of the kashrut of keilim (utensils):
Laws of Kashrut of Keilim
If a keili (utensil) contains non-kosher food, not only may we not eat that food, but we may also not use that utensil for hot kosher food if the non-kosher food it previously contained was hot. The reason is because flavor is absorbed in the sides of the keili, and ta’am ke’ikkar – flavor has the spiritual and halachik properties of the food itself.
There is a way to repair that keili and make it fit for kosher use. Theparsha teaches us a second principle, keboll’oh kach polltoh – a keiliwill discharge the flavors it has absorbed if the same level of heat is applied to it as was used when it absorbed the non kosher food’s flavors initially. So a pot in which non-kosher was cooked (in liquid) will discharge those flavors if it is immersed in boiling water. This is called hag’allah.
A pan in which non-kosher food was grilled (without water) must be subjected to the intense heat of a direct flame to cleanse it of its contaminant. This is known as libun.
A utensil that has not been used for non-kosher food but comes from a non-Jewish source, only needs to be immersed in the cold waters of a mikvah. This is called tevilat keilim.
We can learn a lot more from the parsha and its laws of hechsher keilim (repairing utensils from non-kosher contaminant), than how to repair utensils that have become non-kosher.
Human beings are also utensils. We contain life’s experience, we absorb them, we discharge them. Experiences come and pass. Yet, each experience of our lives leaves behind a flavor that we carry within us deep in the fiber of our cellular memories. Long after our conscious minds have forgotten experiences and events, the flavors of those moments can emerge to either enhance or contaminate later experiences.
Think of a very young child who was abused by an overbearing teacher. Long after that child is a grown adult who has rationalized the futility of stereotypical generalization, he or she may still experience flavors of fear and resentment when they encounter overbearing authorities that remind them of that teacher.
Like dishes and saucepans, we absorb, retain and accumulate the flavors of what we have contained long after the contents have been washed away by the passage of time. Negative flavors we hold within us can spoil and contaminate otherwise positive experiences later on.
However, we too can kasher ourselves. We can cleanse ourselves of the contaminants absorbed in the walls of our beings over long periods of time. Where there was intense experience during the absorption of the negative energy, intensity will be needed in the cleansing. Like hag’allah and libun the process of purification matches the process of contamination: keboll’oh kach polltoh.
Sometimes Hashem sends us the pain we need to purify ourselves with, and when He does we embrace that suffering as a gift from Hashem, an opportunity to grow, to do things differently and to detoxify. However, when He does not, we are not required, or even permitted to invite suffering. The Torah does not encourage self-flagellation, fasting and other forms of self-inflicted punishment common in other religions.
There are other ways we can experience the intensity of moralhag’allah and libun. We can purify ourselves with the intense discomfort of serious Torah study, acts of Tzedaka (charity) or other actions of mesirut nefesh (sacrifices for higher cause). Redirecting our energies, investing effort for higher purpose even at personal cost and studying Torah, referred to as fire and as water, cleanse the deepest recesses of cellular memory and remove the toxins of negative energy that accumulate there. We can detox even when the toxins have reached fatally high levels: Hatzedakkah tatzil mimavet (Tzedakkah saves from death).
The Three Weeks
We are in a painful period of recalling events buried deeply in our national cellular memory: the events around the Churban(destruction of the Temple and devastation of Israel and its People). This is not a time to try escape the pain and to seek distraction. Thehalachot of this period are designed to keep us present in the pain and mindful of its cause. That way we can use the pain of this time to cleanse and detoxify our selves from contaminating memories, flavors of negative experiences. In this way we can come to the month of Elul, a period of Divine intimacy, somewhat cleansed, pure and ready to engage with our G-d.
See Vilna Gaon referred to in R. Chaim Valoshner’s Ma’aseh Rav.