Shabbat candles: 8 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 4:21-7:89
Haftorah: Judges 13:2-25
Havdalah: 9:08 p.m.
If you were raised in an age of dental pain, you probably still flinch at the word “decay,” a hideous pronouncement of dire things to come.
The fear of decay runs deep among us. Anthropologists associate it with the horror that premodern societies accord to ritual impurity, precisely the concern of this week’s Torah reading, which describes gonorrhea, leprosy and contact with a corpse as matters of physical decay, so contagious that their victims must be quarantined “outside the camp.”
Biblical men and women probably thought the decay of these particular impurities was passed along through everyday physical contact. No wonder they feared them.
The Rabbis, however, date these impurities only to Sinai, thereby implying that the problem was not just physical. Revelation could hardly have changed the diseases — leprosy is leprosy, after all. What changed was the nature of society.
Pre-Sinai society exemplified what philosophers call “the state of nature” — the “every man for himself” perspective that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Torah is the ethical and social glue that imposes order on primal anarchic chaos. Envisioning Torah as an elemental social contract, the Rabbis transformed the biblical fear of contagious physical impurity into a symbolic warning against mind-sets that threaten the social order with decay.
Itturei Hatorah thus reads “leprosy, gonorrhea, and contact with a corpse” metaphorically. Since the Rabbis thought leprosy a punishment for slander, leprosy is taken to represent the jealousy that lies behind our speaking ill of others. Gonorrhea signifies the extreme selfishness of wanton personal desire at the cost of others. Corpse-contact symbolizes the danger of despair; seeing death as our end anyway, we might mistakenly question the very point of life. Jealousy, selfishness, and despair are indeed disorders that corrode community. Hence the need for ostracism — putting these blights “outside the camp.”
What goes for society goes for institutions as well. Organizations regularly find their best efforts spoiled by destructive jealousies, intense self-centeredness, and nay-saying pessimists whose gloom and doom prevent the good from ever happening. For-profit organizations fire such miscreants. Not-for-profit organizations do not always have that option because they rely on volunteers. They should focus, therefore, on how the Torah concludes this section.
After being warned to ostracize carriers of social decay, we read “The Israelites did so,” and then, “Thus did the Israelites do.” Commentators solve the redundancy by referring the first instance to the Israelite leaders who dutifully obeyed the demand; and the second instance to the offenders themselves who are said to have agreed to be quarantined. The assumption is that problematic people are capable of transcending their own anti-social behavior and getting out of the way to let the communal work proceed. Why would they do that?
People who are jealous, self-centered, and negative do poison the body politic — but usually because they are hurting, not because they are evil. Having their hurt acknowledged can help them overcome their potential toxicity. Board members who lose an election may be able to step aside and let the board do its work. Complainers can be convinced that if they have nothing good to say, they can at least say nothing bad. People who hurt inside crave understanding. If given it, they may allow the project to move ahead, in effect ostracizing themselves from the further pain of an institutional battle that they are going to lose anyway.
It is painful to see everyone else getting ahead, while you alone fall farther behind; painful to want something desperately but know the institution you love is moving in the opposite direction; painful to awaken every morning, seeing the glass half empty and the world growing darker. People who suffer these inner disappointments are to be understood and helped, not despised and denigrated. Show them some love while still insisting on the greater good, and they just might let the greater good happen.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.