And you shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurity, so they do not die in their impurity. – Vayikra/Leviticus 15:31
The word that starts our text, vehizartem, is the Hif’il affix 2mp form of the root nazar in a vav-reversive construction to provide the future tense. The root appears only to be used in the Nif’al – to separate or withdraw oneself from, to restrict oneself or abstain from – and Hif’il – to set apart, to cause to avoid or restrict from – voices (Davidson). Here, then, HaShem is instructing Moshe and Aharon (see 15:1) to separate or set the Children of Israel apart from the things that make them impure lest they enter or approach the Tabernacle in a state of impurity and die.
Biblical Hebrew has two roots that cover the idea of separation. The one encountered first and most often in the Torah is badal, which is also only used in the Nif’al – to be separated or chosen out – and Hif’il – to separate, make a division, distinguish, select – voices (Davidson). It describes what happens several times during the process of creation when “G-d separated the light from the darkness” (B’resheet 1:4). It is also the root that names Havdalah, the ritual at the end of Shabbat to make a separation between Shabbat and the six working days of the week. Nazar, on the other hand, is used less frequently but names the nazarite or nazir who sets himself apart from cutting his hair and from all wine, grapes and grape products for a limited time in order to be holy to G-d.
Rashi is somewhat dismissive, claiming that “the term means nothing but setting apart”. Other commentators offer a range of amplification, for example Richard Elliott Friedman who translates the verse “And you shall alert the Children of Israel regarding their impurity …” and Gunther Plaut who quotes the JPS translation and comments, “‘you shall put on guard’ – from the same root as nazir, one set apart for a sacred function. Literally, ‘Set [the Israelites] apart carefully [from their impurity]'”. Ibn Ezra connects with the same idea: “the root means, ‘to keep oneself far from something’, so in ‘Instruct Aharon and his sons to be scrupulous’ (Vayikra 22:2, JPS). A nazarite keeps himself far from worldly appetites.”
Hirsch brings the ideas of both intention and self-action rather than something imposed from outside together, explaining that nazar “has the fundamental meaning of keeping away from, ‘separating’; not simply in space but also a ‘keeping away’ which demands a moral self-control, hence also “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month” (Zechariah 7:3, JPS) or “Should I mourn and fast” (NIV), that introduces the idea of fasting. The separation demanded here, the keeping away from all impurity and especially from bodily conditions brought on by themselves, does require the use of moral self-control and has indeed the ultimate purpose of insisting on the fact that man is master of his moral self and can exercise self-control.”
But there is a problem here. Sexual intercourse between a husband a wife is necessary in order to fulfill the command to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” (B’resheet 1:28, JPS). However, earlier in the same block of instructions as our text, HaShem tells Moshe and Aharon, “If a man goes to bed with a woman and has sexual relations, both are to bathe themselves in water; they will be unclean until evening” (Vayikra 15:18, CJB). If you cannot procreate without becoming unclean, and we are to avoid impurity lest we die, that could be seen as placing a question mark over the provenance of the human race. The Sages realised that people might need some help here, so the Ralbag explains that “they are not forbidden to become unclean, merely warned to avoid entering the sanctuary when unclean. So they must exercise particular care when they come on pilgrimage.” Becoming unclean is not forbidden – otherwise, several of the temple and cult rituals could not be performed (for example, the Red Heifer) and dead bodies could not be buried – but there are consequential limitations that must be observed.
Baruch Levine sums up: “This is a major statement of policy. Although an impure person may not be guilty of any offense against G-d, as is true of these laws dealing with illnesses and natural physiological processes, such impurities nevertheless threaten the status of the entire community if left unattended. If the sanctuary were defiled, G-d’s wrath would be aroused against the entire community. It is not the condition of impurity per se that evokes G-d’s punishment, but the failure to rectify that condition so as to restore a state of purity.”
Now, Christianity doesn’t really do purity and impurity. Something either is a sin or it is not; and apart from some minority sections of the church that have a problem with the L-rd really forgiving certain sins in this life and imposing their own forgiven-but-impure status on the poor folk that have unwittingly fallen into those sins and circles, ‘impure’ is not a status that the church recognises as applying to Christians today.
That said, let’s consider someone who makes a faith commitment and perhaps starts well, but now has a totally relapsed lifestyle, as if they had never made that commitment. Are they still saved but impure because of the life they now live, or have they proved that their commitment wasn’t genuine in the first place, even if they and others thought it was? We’re on the boundary of justification and sanctification: what G-d does and what we do. And this is where the text helps us apply G-d’s love and justice – for the two always go hand in hand – to our lives. We cannot, for example, expect to be shown G-d’s mercy if we never ask for it and Yeshua makes it clear that G-d’s distribution of mercy to us is dependent on the way we show mercy to others. We have to be involved in making ourselves holy – as our good friends the rabbis have shown us above – we have to exercise some moral self-control to avoid sin and contamination with the things of this world. That is why Yeshua prayed for the disciples; that although they were in the world – the location was unavoidable – they would not be part of the world: they could and should choose not to behave in the way that the world behaves or become co-opted by the world’s values and desires.
It is too easy to think that holiness is a gift: something that G-d does and gives to us, all done and dusted. While we may pass from death to life, while we may be born again, while we may be justified – that is, acquire the legal status of being “in Christ” – the ball is now in our court, to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, NASB). We have the Ruach in us, of course, to help and advise, to push and pull when we are reluctant, even at times to coerce us against our (own, selfish) wills, but ultimately the walk of holiness has to be a habit that we cultivate ourselves. We have to acquire the habits of holy living, of choosing to do the right things simply because they are the right things to do.
Is that what setting ourselves apart to G-d means? Do we, like the nazarites, have to make a vow to be holy for thirty, sixty or ninety days, restarting the count if we mess up and touch or do something sinful? And what is the penalty for getting it wrong – do we get struck off the roll or smartly boxed on the ear? No vows are required; instead we are all called to live lives of holiness in response to what Father G-d has done for us in Yeshua – not to earn our salvation or His love, but as a love response to Him and a way of life that will be a blessing to both us and others around us and a means of sharing G-d’s story with with world. So there is no fixed term; this is a calling for the rest of our lives, for ever. As to getting things wrong, well, G-d knows that this will happen from time to time, despite our best (or sometimes, not so best) endeavours and He has provided a way for us to recover and carry on, to pick ourselves up of the floor, to dust ourselves off, to find forgiveness and new grace in Yeshua and to push back on with the adventure. No-one gets struck off the roll or their ears boxed – except, perhaps, by the Spirit – it isn’t about punishment but growth, retraining and encouragement rather than rebuke and chastisement. When Solomon wrote that “the fear of the L-rd is the beginning of wisdom”, (Proverbs 9:10, NASB) he didn’t mean that we should be afraid of G-d but be in awe and reverence of Him, not taking Him for granted but confident in His grace and love.
It does mean that we need to be serious about out relationship with and commitment to G-d. We have to actively engage with Him and the things of the kingdom. We need to intentionally spend time with Him and learn what pleases Him and blesses us. Speaking to Israel, G-d said, “I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear! These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:15-16, NASB). See how G-d’s action and Israel’s actions are paired: to make it work, both are necessary. If G-d is going to good in our days, and this is what we hope for and look to as the fulfillment of Scripture, then we should expect the same template and paradigm to apply: He acts and initiates, we act in response and together His purposes are achieved.
Further Study: Zechariah 8:14-17; Ephesians 4:25-32
Application: How are you acting today? Are you sitting on your hands, waiting for G-d to do everything, or are you actively seeking to respond to Him and fulfil your part of His plans?