This week’s Torah reading discusses the complex laws of ritual impurity and purity, tum’ah and taharah.

The Torah tells us that “every earthen vessel into which any [impure creature shall] fall . . . shall be unclean.”

There is an interesting distinction made in Jewish law between different types of utensils. If a source of impurity comes within the inside space of a vessel which is made of earthenware, even if it doesn’t touch the walls of the vessel, then the vessel becomes impure. However, if it did not enter the vessel, even if it touched the walls from outside, the vessel remains pure.

With all other utensils, the opposite is the case: having a source of impurity placed within the space of a vessel does not make the vessel impure, whereas touching any part of the vessel does render it impure.

Why is this?

The value of a utensil made of wood or metal is contained not only within its function as a container. The material that it is made of has intrinsic value. On the other hand, a vessel made of earthenware, whose makeup is nothing more than mere earth, is of value only when used as a container; accordingly, its status of ritual purity is determined by what happens inside the vessel. The outside of the vessel, by itself, has no intrinsic value.

There is a simple yet very beautiful lesson from these complex legalities.

The Torah tells us that “G‑d formed man out of the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostril a living soul.” We humans are earthenware vessels! Ethics of the Fathers tells us, “Do not look at the vessel, but rather at its contents.” Therefore we must remember that our worth lies not in our physical material exterior, but in the inner contents. That which is relevant to the inner self and to the soul is what defines a person, not the superficial exterior.