This article incorporates ideas and interpretations that emerge from the weekly Chumash learning group that meets in the shul. I am responsible for the integration of the ideas and their formulation. Thanks to Dr. Isaac Benzaquen for reviewing this article and sharing his insights into the psychological concepts and terms.
"R' Isaac further said that a person is obligated to purify himself for the Festival" (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16: b).
The need to not be in a state of Tumah is especially important for the holiday of Shavuoth, the anniversary of the receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This Divine manifestation and revelation is the fundamental experience that created a unique relationship and bonding between Hashem and us. On Shavuoth we recall and try to relive the emotional experience of Mount Sinai.
We think Tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Our hypothesis is that Tumah is a state of cognitive loss; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter into any relationship--not with Hashem and not with other human beings.
Contact with death precipitates a state of Tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all Tumah," because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, fear (of one's own mortality?) and negativism that can absorb all of the person's emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others.
The negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e.,Tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" by the latter is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each Tameh person comes into contact with another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of Tumah) weakens.
A woman who menstruates, a women who has given birth, and people who experience abnormal sexual emissions (zav, zava) are deemed to be in a state of Tumah because blood and fluids associated with the procreative process represent on some level of the human mind the (potential) death of a human life. Bad and sad feelings result (e.g., postpartum depression) and fill the person with negativity...i.e., Tumah.
The Mishkan, the Beis Hamikdash and Mt. Sinai have been designated by the Torah as places where an individual can have a relationship with God. It is in these locations that one can bring a Korban, an offering of/from oneself to experience closeness with the Divine. It is in these locations that Hashem communicates with us (from above the Cheruvim, and from atop the mountain). Indeed, the Ramban, and more recently, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, note that the role of the Mishkan during the wandering in the desert was to serve as a constant and concrete reminder of the Mt. Sinai experience, as a kind of visual representation of the place that the special relationship with Hashem was forged. The encampment surrounding the Mishkan, the flames from the offering of korbanot in the very center mirrored the encampment on and around Mt. Sinai where Korbanot were offered amidst the fiery scene. There is no Biblical injunction against being in a state of Tumah. A person's status in this regard is relevant only regarding the permissibility of entry into these holy places.
To develop a relationship one needs to prepare oneself, much as a farmer needs to plow his fields and plant seed if he is to reap the benefit of rain. If we are filled with negativity in a state of emotional self absorption (Tameh) it is pointless to enter the Mishkan, for no relationship can or will occur. This truth is applicable to our human relationships, particularly the most important one of all, the spousal situation. When there is the negativity by one of the partners, there can be no meaningful relationship. In our view, this is the deeper message of Tumah for us all in our religious and personal lives.
To be prepared for the relationship experience that is Shavuoth, one must actively create a reservoir of positive emotional/religious energies. It is a building- up process, day by day for 49 days to neutralize the deep feelings of depression and worthlessness that we experienced in Egypt (that is captured in a poetic description of our having plunged to the 49th level of Tumah—meaning, in our view, to the depths of despair.) If perchance we forget to count one day (i.e., we fail to think and emote positivity), we have interrupted the integrity of the building process. Each day is an emotional building block that builds on the previous day. By missing a link of a day we are no longer able to achieve the totality of the rebuilding of our spirit, a recognition that manifests in the inability to recite the Bracha.
What we think and feel while counting the Omer can help us emerge from whatever Tumah state we may have been in. This prepares us to re-accept and re-experience the defining Jewish experience at Mt. Sinai on Shavuoth. And we hope and pray that this healthy emotional condition extends itself to all our personal, human relationships.