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The Pure Ones

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“Let the pure come and engage in the pure.”

I will never forget something I witnessed 32 years ago. In the midst of a lengthy discourse about the nature of existence, the Rebbe pointed to a child standing in front of me and asked him (in Yiddish): “Fuhn vanent veist du as es iz do a velt?” (how do you know that the world exists?) Without waiting for a reply the Rebbe continued: “er veist vayl es shtayt Bereishis boro Elokim es ha’shomayim v’es ha’oretz” (he knows, because the verse says “In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth”).

The Rebbe was making the point that children see reality with pure, unadulterated eyes, unlike us world-weary, jaded adults. Children’s initial awareness of the vast universe is not through their experience but by being told about it. When they study Torah and read the opening verse of Genesis, they are enlightened to world’s existence.

Essentially, it’s a message of purity: What a beautiful way to learn about the world – not via TV, not via adults, not via any distorted sources, but from the Divine Source of all life telling us children: Hear my children! The world in which you live is a Divine space. Do not allow the darkness, the corruption and the pain of the world to define your reality; always know that the world – your world – is Divinely inspired.

One can only wonder what effect such a message would have on our children; what impact it would have as our children grow into adults. And how was the child affected by a Tzaddik’s trembling finger pointed at him 32 years ago?

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“Let the pure come and engage in the pure” – this is how the Sages express the earliest stage of children’s education.

The Sages are referring to the established custom of beginning a child’s study with the book of Leviticus (which we begin reading this week):

Why do young children commence [the study of Torah] with the Book of Leviticus [the Laws of the Priests], and not with the [Book of] Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot (offerings) are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.” (1)

An additional Midrash takes this even further:

Therefore [when the children study] I consider it as if they are bringing the offerings before Me. Though the Temple was destroyed and offerings are not brought [on the altar], were it not for the children reading the sacrificial laws the world would not stand.”

Cultivating purity in our children is the underlying message.

What exactly is “purity”?

Often, the best way to understand a concept is by examining its converse.

Ask yourself: How sacred do you feel your life is? How pure are your activities? How indispensable do you think you are?

We live in a world in which we are being taught that people are essentially selfish creatures, driven by self-interest.

In the Darwinian-Freudian model of life, which is the prevalent theory invading every aspect of our existence, our psyches are being continuously drilled with how insignificant are lives truly are. The driving ethos of all creatures is “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” basically renders every human virtue, every noble act, every thing we hold dear, as a method for billion-year-old bacteria to adapt and survive.

Purity – that’s for the naïve child, the foolish idealists unaware of mans’ cruelty and the harshness of existence. Wake up to the real world – in which “dog eats dog” and if you don’t protect yourself the predators lurking everywhere will get you.

Is there such a thing as a good man? A pure spirit? “Realists” will argue that goodness and purity – with no strings attached – are for the fools or the dreamers. Skeptics will add that noble illusions of grandeur are for the desperate. I don’t even want to think what cynics will say.

Now compare this with the statement “Let the pure come and engage in the pure.” One can not help but marvel at the stark contrast of this gentle description of our children (as the pure engaged in the pure) with the message inundating us in our homes, schools and media – that our lives lack intrinsic value; all the things we hold precious are simply brute forces of survival.

Just follow the media trail of the last few decades and you will have a sample of the devaluation and depersonalization of life. In fact, I did exactly that with the venerable New York Times (is there a pattern here, conscious or unconscious?).

First it was faith. Several years ago, in a cover magazine story, Darwin’s God: Why Do We Believe, Robin Marantz Henig documents how scientists are dissecting the DNA of faith. Basically, she writes that all scientists agree that:

“Religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.”

To the farthest extreme we have Richard Dawkins and company, who writes in his best-selling book The God Delusion:

“Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful.”

But at best, even the so-called supporters of faith, are searching for the adaptive social benefits of faith.

In other words, there is no validity to faith unless it helps creatures adapt for purposes of survival.

Next it was humor.

“Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science,”

Writes John Tierney in his column in the NYT Science section.

“Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.”

Even our laughter – a tool that has soothed many a pained soul, and relieved many a pedestrian life – is being dehumanized into another adaptive survival device. We laugh not because it’s funny; a “sense of humor” is not due to us being privy to the human comedy, but rather a method to keep us dancing to the same tune. Tell that to stand-up comics and social satirists: We are laughing at your jokes not because you are witty or insightful, but because you are ringleaders helping us bond.

Finally, morality. In another NYT Science section article Nicholas Wade reports on how scientists are seeing morality as simply another evolutionary force that allows for people to work better as a social group, and thus survive. Indeed, biologist Edward O. Wilson, suggested as much in his 1975 book “Sociobiology” that:

“The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”

Wade cites Dr. de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, who argues that:

“All social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.”

As Dr. de Waal sees it:

“Human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare,” he writes. “The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.”

So there goes morality, piled up in a heap together with humor, faith, hope, love, sincerity and all our noblest virtues – everything pure in our lives diminished into basic survival instincts of billion-year-old bacteria as they compete and evolve into beings that create stronger social bonds so that we can hunt, survive the elements and avoid extinction.

Call me simple or old-fashioned. Call me emotional and non-scientific. But I prefer the description of my children – and your children – as pure souls, who are unconditionally pure, not in order to elicit in us compassion so that we better feed them to ensure their survival. They are essentially pure – a step closer, perhaps to the Divine.

All the scientific theories may or may not have some basis. But one thing is certain (and not theoretical): They do not leave us empowered. Indeed, they leave us feeling weak, malleable, manipulated, controlled by forces outside of our choices, fearful, vulnerable and competing for survival with our own neighbors and friends. In one word: insignificant.

They desanctify our choices and render our noblest features as essentialy selfish efforts to survive at all costs.

What truly resonates is the sense that somewhere deep inside all of us – even in the most hardened, jaded, darkened and distorted psyches – lies an untouched purity that has the power to change the world.

What is purity? Pure means an essential state of being, before it assumes any superimposed features. Purity is a state that is unpolluted by human devices and man-made institutions. It’s hard to describe purity with our conventional language which itself is far from pure, like all language that reflects the reality that language describes. To appreciate purity we need to access a place that is beyond conventional experiences.

The face of a newborn child, the simple flower, the teardrop – any force in life that is untouched by humans – expresses purity.

Raw material existence, divorced of spirit, is not pure, nor is it real. Naked materialism is but a surface layer of existence, shrouding the life force within.

Purity is thus the soul:

“The soul that You have given me is pure.” (“tehoreh hi”)

In its essential form, every soul is pure. Then the soul begins a journey:

“You have created it, You have shaped it, You have breathed it into me, and You protect it within me.”

Because once the pure soul enters an impure world it needs all the protection it can get.

Children are pure – they express the purest state of being, like freshly fallen snow, untouched, pristine, innocent. As the Midrash puts it, children are called “pure” because they are incapable of sin, “they don’t know the taste of sin and iniquity.” This is the ultimate purity – not out of naiveté or inexperience; quite the contrary. Children are closest to the true Divine nature of life.

We look at a child and we see purity. We see our own quintessence – how we are at our best and our purest, unadulterated and unvarnished. And we must respect it – for in the child’s purity lies our salvation.

When you are in a state of purity you feel like you belong. When a child sleeps peacefully in bed, knowing in her heart that she is in a safe home – nurtured, cared for, validated – she feels like a fish in water; she belongs. By contrast when we don’t feel nurtured and cared for, our norm becomes a state of “impurity,” which manifests in fear and insecurity. We feel detached from others and from our environment, a dispensable speck lost in a fragmented universe, with each unit looking out for its own needs.

Therein lays the powerful message of our sages:

“Let the pure come and engage in the pure.”

The first two books of the Torah discuss the creation of the universe (Genesis) and the power of transforming the universe (Exodus). But when it comes to the first stage of a child’s education – the first exposure of a child that embodies purity with knowledge – we reach into a place that precedes and is beyond existence, the purest possible state. This pure state is the theme of the Torah’s third book – the book of Leviticus, also called the book of offerings (korbanot), which discusses how a human being offers himself and becomes close and intimate with the Divine (korban is rooted in the word korov, close).

We begin, therefore, teaching a child not about Genesis (“In the beginning G-d created…”) – the child will have plenty of time to learn and experience the universe; we also don’t begin teaching a child about Exodus (2) and the power of transcendence – that too will come with time. We begin with appreciating the child’s essential purity and immersing the little child in his natural environment – “Let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure:” Inoculate the child with a full dose of purity, before he has to engage the less pure elements of life. Empower him with resources to purify his life and environment.

That’s how we begin a child’s life.

Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid cites a custom of placing the book of Vayikra (Torat Kohanim) in a baby’s crib near the baby’s head when he is named at his Bris.

The impact on a child surrounded by holiness and purity is immeasurable. Psychology today is just beginning to recognize the far-reaching effects of early childhood experiences.

In the difficult world in which we live we can use all the help we can get to bolster our inner confidence and build an arsenal of pure innocence that will carry us through our lives.

Imagine what we would be like if we never had an enchanted childhood. If we were thrust into the harsh world as hardened adults…

So, as we enter the holy book of Leviticus – come gather together pure ones, and engage in a bit of purity.

Thank G-d for our pure children. Thank G-d for the pure child within each of us. Now we must ensure that the child be engulfed in purity. Then, the world will stand firmly on a solid, unwavering foundation.

And what about the child the Rebbe pointed to 32 years ago? I should know. He is my youngest brother.

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(1) Leviticus Rabba 7:3. Tanchuma Tzav 14. Cited in Kol Bo 74. Shach Yoreh Deah 245:8.

Some find evidence of this practice in Tannaic times in Rabbi Judah’s permission to prepare scrolls, for use by children, in which the first five chapters of Bereishit and the first eight chapters of Vayikra were written (Gittin 60a. Soferim 5:9). In addition, the first piece of Torah that Rabbi Akiva studied after he had mastered the alef-bet was from Vayikra (Abot d’Rabbi Nathan 6:2). Rashi writes (Chulin 66A) that by the time students entered the Beit Midrash (academy), they were already well versed in the book of Vayikra (see Meir Ish Shalom’s introduction to Chapter 6 of Mechilta).

Sefer Chasidim (sec. 1140) brings a custom of placing the book of Vayikra (Torat Kohanim) in a baby’s crib near the baby’s head when he is named at his Bris.

(2) Which is how the Torah should have actually opened, as Rabbi Yitzchak says: The Torah, which is a book of Mitzvot, should have begun not with the story of Genesis, but with the first mitzvah: The blessing of the new moon (Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem) – Tanchuma (Buber) Genesis 11. Rashi Genesis 1:1.

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Question of the Week: How does one reclaim a lost childhood?

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Devorah Fineblum

Todah for an inspiring way to approach Shabbat and to Irwin Harelick for his magnificent sunrise story. Shabbat shalom to one and all..

lydia friedlich

Reclaim your childhood, my childhood with faith, forgiveness, and thoughts of the future.

ruth housman

What you wrote is pure beauty, and you get to essence and that perfume, that is soul and there is nothing I can really say to add to this beautiful piece. I have a new minted granddaughter, named Jasmine Louisa, and shes just so beautiful, and as I hold her, the angst and pain of the world recedes in this serene little face. Dont children resemble often Buddhist monks in their serenity? this too I see, and the Bud that is within the word, Buddhist. And yes, I am Jewish, but I am doing a walk across Babel, which in… Read more »

Fern Kettner

Loved this article, and wanted to share it as a reading for our family Shabbat dinner this evening, except that your main example of purity being in sacrificing animals makes no sense to me or to my husband and adult kids. Perhaps we just dont get it, but the whole idea is the one thing that keeps us, and I suspect many other fringe Jews, away from ever fully accepting Judaism as a way of life. You write about something so odd to many as if it were a given, but without any explanation, making the article kind of unusable… Read more »

J.J.Cabouch

How does one reclaim a lost childhood? By final acceptance that my steps are not of my own accord and submission to be led according to His will and plan. It was not lost after all, merely misplaced.

Carol Newman

Thank you for this beautiful and most enlightening article. I couldnt help comparing this Jewish view of the PURITY of the soul of a child with the longstanding belief of Catholicism that babies who died prior to being baptized were in a state of original sin and therefore destined to Limbo, if not an eternity in Hell itself. As you are probably aware, the new Pope has determined that there is indeed a possibility that these children might be able to enter Heaven after all, the need for this change having been determined by pastoral need. I like our view… Read more »

Irwin Harelick

I dont know if its possible to reclaim the magic of a lost childhood but I once came very close. Several years ago when I was in my late 50s I walked for thee days alone on the Appalachian Trail through Northern Connecticut . I was not in a hurry and I wanted to treat the walk as a meditative experience. In spite of a few strenuous climbs this part of the trail is not the most challenging. It was October and I was lucky to have beautiful, cool, sunny weather. I thoroughly enjoyed the periodic mountain top views which… Read more »

James Gawron

What a terrific essay. A newspaper full of the most seductive subtle evil western civilization has to manipulate us with. You hold them all at bay with the purity of a childs first experience of torah. Thank you for a little life giving perspective. Ive had to endure more then enough of the intellect of death (Freudian-Darwinian) in my life. Thanks for a moment of joy. How does one reclaim a lost childhood? You have made it clear to me. One must believe again in the purity and engage in the pure.

jen

Therapy, therapy, therapy!

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