We are abundantly blessed with lashon kodesh, the distinct and beautiful Hebrew language. The language of our ancestors, the language of Torah, it is rich with nuanced shorashim, (three-letter roots) and carries a depth of meaning embedded in its compact structure.
Some of us love the language, others struggle with it. But there is no doubt that the minute we translate Hebrew into another language, we make a commentary on it. As translators, how do we carefully choose which word to use? What kind of potential unforeseen misunderstandings or even unintentional minefields do we create when we move from Hebrew to English?
The Book of Leviticus, known by the rabbis as Torat Cohanim (the Instruction of the Priests), abounds with many translation dilemmas. This lofty system of purity, whether we are talking about bodies or articles of clothing, buildings and the like, highlights such a linguistic challenge. How do we translate this priestly system into language that can resonate with us now in our lives?
One of the Hebrew words that stumps many translators is tamei. Although surely reluctant to translate this adjective, the editors of the Etz Hayyim Humash, the Conservative movement’s translation of the Torah with commentary, often translates tamei as “unclean.” What does it mean to be unclean?
This week’s parashah tackles the case of a house in which the dreaded plague has erupted. The plague manifests in the walls of the house, streaking them with sundry colors, seeping deep into its structure. All the walls must be scraped from top to bottom and “the coating that is scraped off must be dumped outside the city in a makom tamei”— “an unclean place” (Leviticus 14:41).
Putting the plague aside for a moment, we are reminded by this Torah portion that we all need to rid our living space of “unclean” discarded items. Having stuff around that we no longer need is one modern category of tamei — just get rid of it already! And what is considered tamei by us might be considered pure by someone else. Our discarded junk could be someone else’s treasure.
But not everything can be given away. What if our discarded items really are tamei? What if they are unusable and can’t be shared with others? What if they really do have to go to the dump?
Can we reconcile the biblical understanding of a makom tamei, an unclean place, with our 21st-century equivalent, the dump? Our undesirable toxic materials, prolific e-waste and our unrecyclable household trash create a huge dilemma in dealing with unclean places. We know we need dumps, but no one wants one in his backyard. In our world, is a makom tamei truly an unclean place that cannot be made clean? Can the dump ever be cleaned up?
Even though we live in a world where the biblical rules of tum’ah (being ritual unclean) do not apply to our current observance of Jewish law, we do have a responsibility to handle our own contemporary tum’ah. Though it is “dumped outside the city,” our abundant waste carries a steep environmental price that we ignore at our own peril. The rabbinic injunction of ba’al tashchit, or “do not destroy,” encompasses this mitzvah of thinking and acting carefully about the world, the waste we create and what we do, or don’t do, with it. How do we carry this responsibility out in the world? What difficult choices do we make? Or do we avoid considering the human effect on this wondrous planet we call home?
We all would benefit from thoughtfully considering our own makom tamei, and translate this into concrete responsible action when we choose what to discard and where to do it. And all of us hold responsibility for the policies and decisions made by our leaders and carried out on our behalf.
So the next time we encounter a makom tamei, let’s not turn away. Perhaps it means giving away our excess possessions to someone who needs them more than we do. Maybe it means reducing our waste or paying closer attention to where our trash really goes. Let’s ask ourselves: What is my Jewish obligation in addressing it?
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.