In Judaism, action is more important than belief. This idea is sometimes expressed by describing Judaism as a religion of “deed, not creed”. In fact, unlike other religions, Judaism has no set of beliefs that one must accept in order to be a Jew.
The closest Judaism has to a set of beliefs are The 13 Principles of Faith of Rambam, also known as Maimonides, who was one of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars. (While Orthodox Jews generally believe in the validity of The 13 Principles of Faith, liberal Judaism challenges many of them.)
One of The 13 Principles of Faith states that Moshe was the greatest of the prophets. G-d demanded that Moshe remain in a constant state of tahara, of spiritual purity and receptivity, in order to be ready to receive prophecy at any time. As a result, Moshe separated from his wife Tzipora.
Was Tzipora the cause of his spiritual impurity? Was Moshe tainted by contact with her impurity?
Let’s leave this question open for a moment and look at this week’s parsha. Most of Mishpatim is a rendering of civil law. At the end of the parsha is a section that some commentators suggest is out of chronological order. Chapter 24 details the ascension of Moshe onto Har Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, to receive the Torah. The problem is that Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. was already detailed in last week’s parsha.
Prior to Matan Torah, the prohibition against intimacy between husband and wife was expressed explicitly. Moshe said to the people, “Be ready after a three-day period; do not come near a woman.” (Exodus 19:15)
To be honest, I resented the implication of this verse for a long time. I didn’t like the fact that it spoke only to the men and I resented the implication, as we saw with Moshe and Tzipora, that women are tainted and must be avoided in order for the men to remain tahor, spiritually pure and maximally receptive.
A typical rabbinic commentary on this verse suggests that, by demanding that men abstain from sexual intercourse for three days prior to Revelation, G-d was testing the men to see if they were worthy of receiving the Torah. The idea behind this test is straightforward. Since the Torah serves to elevate the basic human drives, any man who was able to control himself sexually was ready to receive the Torah and to submit to G-d’s will.
An interesting comment, but what does this have to do with the women who are also preparing to receive the Torah? Are we nothing more than a sexual temptation, which, by avoiding, a man can prove his readiness to accept the Torah?
If we turn to Rashi, the most important Torah commentator of all time, a different picture emerges. In order be on the elevated level to receive the Torah, all the people, men and women both, were required to immerse in a mikvah to remove any taint of tumah. Tumah, a category of spiritual impurity, is caused by, among other things, the seminal discharge that occurs with intercourse.
In simple terms, immersion in a mikvah is a process that transforms tumah, spiritual impurity, into tahara, spiritual purity or receptivity. It is critical to remember that tumah and tahara are spiritual concepts that have no parallel in the physical world and should never be confused with the concepts of dirty and clean.
Moshe needed to be ready to receive prophesy at a moment’s notice. Since he would not always have time to immerse in a mikvah before responding to G-d’s call, he separated from his wife in order to refrain from having intercourse with her.
Rashi teaches that if a woman still had semen within her body that was less than 3 days old, she would not be in the state of tahara, of spiritual purity or receptivity, necessary to receive the Torah. In other words, Rashi says that the demand for men to separate from women prior to Matan Torah was for the benefit of the women! In this way, they would be certain to be free from the tumah that accompanies intercourse and thus be eligible to receive the Torah along with the rest of the Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
Rashi comforts us.