3. On Purity
This is a tale of the Kotsker Rebbe, may his memory be a blessing.
In a little Jewish town, in a ramshackle hut by the river, there lived a poor watercarrier. Every day but Shabbes he would trudge between the well and the houses, wearing a cap and his soiled caftan, with two balanced buckets tied by rope to the wooden pole across his shoulders. His hands were bruised and swollen, and he waddled from side-to-side, even when he wasn’t carrying water.
This hard labor was his lot in life. He had never been to heder, and he couldn’t read or write. But he was very pious. He had a great love for the Holy One, Blessed be He, and a burning desire to speak the passion of his soul through prayer. He knew that Hebrew was the language of prayer, but didn’t know any Hebrew, except a single word that he had heard spoken one day when passing the house of study, which had lodged in his memory. That word was tamei. He didn’t know what it meant, but only that it was a Hebrew word, and it was a great treasure to him.
Early in the morning, every day before starting to work, he would davven by the river, repeating his precious word over and over again–tamei, tamei, tamei–until his spirit began to rise. Then he would sing it, and shout it, consumed by the fire of his prayer, all on this one word–tamei! tamei! tamei! tamei!–while the blood rushing to the surface of his skin made his face red and hot.
This behavior did nothing to improve his status in the town. The children would run after him in the street, shouting: tamei! And the scholars, watching him pass, would nod to each other and chuckle: tamei, indeed.
Once, on one of his journeys, the rebbe of Kotsk, peace be upon him, happened to stay overnight in this village, at the home of one of his disciples. In the morning, seeking a minute of peace, he went down to the river, on the outskirts of town, where he found the watercarrier in the midst of his prayers. He looked on as the watercarrier shouted, and leapt into the air, crying: tamei! tamei! tamei! The Kotsker observed this strange sight for a while, a poor, disheveled man in the throes of his spiritual passion, bellowing in joyful song at the top of his lungs: tamei! tamei! tamei!
The rebbe was deeply moved. This was a holy being. He admired the prayer of the watercarrier. But he was troubled by it, all the same, because, you see, the rebbe knew what tamei meant.
When the watercarrier paused, the rebbe approached him.
“What are you doing, my friend?” he asked.
It took a moment for the watercarrier to come out of his transport, but when he took note of the distinguished rebbe, in his fine shtreimel and kapote, he became very attentive.
“I’m davvening,” said the watercarrier. “I’m praying. I’m praying, and then I will carry water to the town.”
“That’s very good,” said the rebbe. “God hears all prayers that are offered with a pure heart. But there’s just one thing. The word you are chanting, tamei, do you know what it means?”
“No,” said the watercarrier.
“It means ‘impure’,” said the rebbe. “Dirty. Unclean. It is an impure word. It is better for a pure heart to pray with a pure word. Let me teach you one. Tahor. It means pure. Pray with the word tahor, a pure word befitting your pure heart.”
The watercarrier was very grateful.
“Tahor,” he said. “Yes, rabbi. I will pray tahor. Thank you, rabbi. Thank you. Tahor. Tahor. Tahor.”
Here’s another story. If it seems unrelated at first, just hear me out.
I was digging through the dumpster at Boyden and Perron, one morning this past spring, and the phone in my pocket was vibrating. I use cardboard as mulch on my farm, and there was a good haul that day from a recent shipment of Toro lawnmowers. In fact, there was so much that I was late for work, which I thought explained the buzzing of my phone. The alarm had first gone off forty minutes earlier, to alert me it was time to leave the house. Ever since, it had been snoozing for five minutes and then picking up again. I intended that this pattern would goad me through the morning, and in this it had been only moderately successful.
But during a lull in the vibration, it occurred to me that the interval had shortened, from five minutes to one. Setting down the lid of the dumpster, I pulled the phone from my pocket and scanned the display. Elise, my wife, had been trying to reach me, calling and then hanging up without leaving a message, only to call right back again. I remember gazing into a puddle of rainwater as I called her back, thinking: my plans are about to change. Nobody calls like that unless there’s news. I was right.
Efraim burst into tears when he saw me. He had been holding them in for a while. The teacher said he had been very brave. He was lying on a little cot by the door, in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. The rest of the playroom was dark–hushed for naptime–though a few of his little friends amused themselves in a corner. His lip had swollen into a sneer. A bubble of blood trickled down from the deep cut he had torn with his own tooth. The gap where the skin was severed held the strangeness of the body gone wrong, like the dangling of a broken limb. The teachers were still jittery. He had bled a lot, all over the bathroom floor. He melted into my shoulder when I lifted him up. There was blood on his clothing, and when he hugged me a few drops landed on my collar. He saw this, and said, “you have blood on you,” and this made him cry again.
At Urgent Care, while Efraim sipped water through a straw, the doctor inflated a blue latex glove and, by tying it off and adding a few lines and dots with a sharpie, transformed it into an elephant. But he said the stitches were beyond his ability, and suggested we go to a specialist. The cut, at the corner of my son’s mouth, extended just above the flesh of the lip, crossing, by a fraction, what I learned that day is quite poetically called “the vermillion border.” If the suturing didn’t line up just right there would be an evident scar, marking a pure young face for the rest of its life with the legacy of a one second slip on the tile floor of a preschool bathroom.
Day turned to night, and my car, with the load of cardboard still stacked in the trunk, was now parked in one of the lots at Baystate. On a surgical bed in our little nook of the pediatric ER, beside the monitors and the television screen where he had watched an adventure of Winnie the Pooh, Elise cradled Efraim in her arms like a junior version of a pieta–the wounded son draped across his mother’s lap. He was waking from a ketamine trance–a facet of the treatment that had disturbed us far more than the accident itself. He was listless, and his open eyes glistened with pooling tears. A few efficient stitches had sewn him up. They would dissolve within a week, leaving him virtually unblemished. It was a very good job–if you look at him, you won’t notice a thing. It’s only when I pull back his lip, to help with toothbrushing, that I see the little tag of displaced skin.
I wasn’t done with the other story. There’s more to it.
After the rebbe of Kotsk had given the watercarrier a new word–tahor, pure, instead of tamei, impure–he went back up the hill to the house of his disciple, where the hasidim gathered in a minyan to daven shacharit, the dawn prayer. Later that day, the rebbe left town.
But something happened. The next morning, as usual, the watercarrier woke up early and left his shack to pray by the river. But when he opened his mouth, no words came out. He simply could not remember the word that the rebbe had taught him, and when he cast his mind back for the old word it wasn’t there either. He tried as hard as he could, but all he could stammer out was a mash of syllables–tamor, tahei–and he knew these weren’t right, because his soul would not rise on them. He was very upset.
“The rabbi has made me unhappy,” he said. “The rabbi has taken away my word.”
And he set off to find the rebbe.
It’s a great story, and it came to me in an unusual way. When I lived in Dublin, a friend gave me a box of Yiddish books he found in his father’s attic. They were nothing to write home about, except for this one little gem–a slender volume on dry and yellowing pages with a cracked binding. These were Kotsker mayses–tales of the Kotsker Rebbe, which I read till the book fell apart. This one was the second of the collection, and it enthralled me, because I had not expected such subversion from a seemingly pious text. The ending is the best part, but we need to talk about a few more things before we get there.
According to Torah, tumah (impurity) and tahara (purity) are fluctuating states, which regulate our access to God. God is holy and the source of all that is holy in the world, but the world is subject to corruption. We bear decay in the fabric of our being. It is what differentiates us from God. God is perfect and unchanging, but we are born, give birth, and die. Our bodies are predisposed to infirmity and accident, illness and infection, and given to the natural flux of menstruation and emission. When we are touched by these things, we are deemed alienated from God. In such a state, we are barred from entrance to the holy places, even ostracized, like the watercarrier, from community and banished to the extremities of the camp. In one striking passage, which the Kotsker, being a great scholar of Torah, must have known intimately, the impure are instructed to cry out–tamei! tamei! tamei!–so that nobody will draw near and be infected by what is really as much a spiritual as a physical contagion.
But the impure may be purified by undergoing rituals of cleansing under the supervision of religious authorities, the most common being immersion in the waters of the mikveh. Yom Kippur is also a rite of purification. It blends the language of tumah and taharah with the categories of sin and repentance, following the lead of a passage from the prophet Isaiah. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” Sin creates impurity–like the blood of a wound that seeps through gauze. But this day comes to turn the red to white again. Those who cried tamei are taught to say tahor, and we are reconciled with the holiness of a perfect God.
At least, this is a traditional understanding of how it works. I have my doubts, and so, I think, did the Kotsker rebbe.
I cherish the innocence of my son’s beautiful face. I was anxious to have his wound healed in a way that would leave him unblemished, and so we travelled from one hospital to another that day, and gave his body its first taste of anesthetic. I have no regrets about this, and am grateful for the skill and compassion of his doctors, and the wonders of modern medicine. Still, I recognize that there is really no perfection, no purity, even in the subtlest of healing. It’s not just the little tag of skin that makes this clear to me. Efraim was sitting beside me as I wrote this. He asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he furrowed his brow in thought, and then, remembering his own fear and pain, asked me, “why was I so sad?” Though his face is unscarred, the wound is now part of the texture of his being, because, like all of us, except for God, he is made of blood and change.
So when we atone and strive for holiness it should not be against the false measure of an illusory perfection; not to fulfill the nostalgic yearning for return to a pristine world that existed before wound and pollution, illness, alienation, and death; and not with prayers that are chastened and smothered in white, but with the reality of ourselves, pulsating to incandescence in jagged vermillion.
The rebbe stayed overnight at an inn, and continued his journey the next day on foot. The road brought him through a dense forest, and then, coming out the other side, he found himself on the shore of a lake. As he was a rebbe, and a miracle worker, it was simple enough for him to take the clean handkerchief out of his pocket, lay it down upon the water, and ride it like a raft. It was just as he had reached the middle of the lake that the watercarrier came bursting out of the woods. He saw the rebbe, riding on the windblown waves, and without giving it another thought flung down his own tattered kerchief and set off upon it, paddling furiously with his strong arms to overtake the rebbe, and crying out to him.
The rebbe heard a noise and turned around to see the watercarrier coming after him, as miraculous in his conveyance as he was. And he heard what the man was shouting.
“Rabbi!” yelled the watercarrier. “You have taken my word from me. Give me back my word!”
It was then that the rebbe realized his mistake.
“My friend,” he cried, and his voice carried over the water, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Your word is tamei! Tamei! Pray tamei! Tamei! Tamei!”