By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
The Torah sets standards of modesty and cleanliness in the army camp, requiring us to distance sources of impurity or excrement from the camp. It provides the following rationale, "So that He will not see any nakedness in you and turn away from behind you." (Devarim 23:15) These laws apply, as well, to one who is involved in learning Torah or davening, who must ensure a modest and clean environment. Yet, these seem to be products of normal, human bodily functions, so why must they be distanced?
When Adam and Chava were first created, it says about them, "They were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed." (Bereishit 2:25) After they ate from the tree of knowledge, however, it says, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked; and they sewed together a fig leaf and made themselves aprons." (ibid. 3:7) Why is it that only after eating from the tree of knowledge they perceived that they were naked, but beforehand they felt no shame?
Man is comprised of dual dimensions. He is formed from the dust, as other animals, to provide physical form. However, he also has within him a soul, a Divine part, which gives his a spiritual nature. The commentators note that the word "adam" (man) has two connotations. The first is "adama" -- earth, alluding to the dust and man's physical similarity to animals. The second is "adameh le`elyon" -- I will be akin to that above, since man has the ability to emulate the angels. These two dimensions are in constant struggle. If a person is successful, he is able to serve G-d with his physical capacities just as he does with his soul. If he fails, however, his soul becomes subservient to his body, and he deteriorates to a level below that of animals.
Before Adam's sin, his physical dimension was subservient to G-d, and he fulfilled his calling with both his physical and spiritual capacities. There was no shame associated with the intimate organs, "... since there is nothing degrading about this matter in and of itself. Only because man intends for his desire and impulse -- on account of this it is disgraceful." (Maharal, Be'er Hagolah) When Man sinned and followed his desires -- "it was a delight to the eyes" (Bereishit 3:6) -- he distanced his body from its true purpose, the service of G-d, and used it to serve his lowly needs, the satisfaction of merely physical desires. This lowered man closer to the level of animals, and brought with it a feeling of shame, which comes when one recognizes his inferiority. When a person fails to fulfill his calling and falls from his appropriate level, he becomes disappointed with himself, and feels shame.
"For there is nothing disgraceful at all about the union of man and his wife ... Only because a person intends for his desire and impulse, because of this matter it is disgraceful. Therefore, before [man] sinned and leaned towards his desire and impulse, there was no disgrace involved. Only when impulse entered it [the act of union] and it became enwrapped in physical desire - then it is a disgrace because of the desire ...
Beforehand this activity was to [Adam] the same as other activities; ... but after leaning towards desire, then it was proper for them to cover the nakedness." (Maharal, ibid.)
The need to cover the nakedness is because after the sin it serves as a tool for the lesser side of man.
These dual dimensions of man express themselves in his functions and activities (B. Hagiga 16):
Six things were said about Man, three of which compare him to angels, and three of which compare him to animals. In three respects [people] are compared to angels -- they have intelligence, they walk upright, and they speak in Hebrew. And in three respects they are compared to animals -- they eat and drink like an animal, they reproduce like an animal, and they excrete like an animal.
A spiritual person is able to eat and to reproduce in a non-animalistic and sanctified fashion, but he cannot avoid excreting like an animal. Therefore, nakedness and excrement are items that point to man's animalistic side. Thus, when a person is involved in Torah and other holy matters, he must keep far from anything which hints to his crass and animalistic side. As such, we are commanded, "You shall dig ... and cover up your excrement ... Your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see any nakedness among you and turn away from behind you." (Devarim 23:14-15)