If you were raised in an age of dental pain, you probably still flinch at the word “decay,” a hideous pronouncement denoting a “cavity” where the decay progresses until everything simply rots away.
No one diagnosed with “decay” thinks much about its linguistic connotations, but our metaphors for illness should be taken seriously. When, for instance, we “fight off” incipient colds, take medicine to “strengthen our defenses,” or worry about heart “attacks,” we picture illness as war. What does the metaphor of decay convey?
The point matters for this week’s Torah portion, which discusses ritual impurity, a condition that anthropologists have associated worldwide with the fear of decay. The three conditions in question here are gonorrhea, leprosy, and contact with a corpse. Threat of contagious decay leads our sedra to demand that victims of all three be quarantined “outside the camp.”
Biblical men and women probably thought these impurities posed actual physical harm — decay through bodily contact. The rabbis, however, maintain that the three cases became impure only after Sinai, thereby implying a concern for something other than the purely physical condition of the people involved. Revelation could hardly have changed their physical state — leprosy is leprosy, after all. What changed was the nature of society as a whole.
The pre-Sinai situation is 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 guarantees the social order without which we are not fully human. It transformed a motley group of slaves into a community.
The rabbis therefore reshaped the biblical fear of physical impurity into a metaphor for destructive mind-sets that impede community.
Of particular interest, then, is Itturei Hatorah’s metaphoric reading of leprosy, gonorrhea, and contact with a corpse, to reflect precisely that social concern. Since the rabbis thought leprosy was the punishment for slander, leprosy stood for the jealousy that often lies behind our speaking ill of others. Gonorrhea represented the extreme selfishness of satisfying wanton physical desire at the cost of infecting others. Contact with a corpse was thought to awaken dormant thoughts of despair — if death is our end anyway, we might imagine, what is life’s point? Jealousy, selfishness, and despair are social disorders that erode community solidarity. Hence ostracism: the need to put these blights “outside the camp.”
What goes for society goes for institutions as well. Organizations regularly find their best efforts spoiled by petty jealousies, wanton self-centeredness, and nay-sayers who dismiss the hope of a healthy future as worthless and thereby prevent its ever coming to pass. For-profit organizations just fire such miscreants. Not-for-profit organizations, however — our synagogues first and foremost — do not 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 explain the redundancy by referring the first instance to the leaders in the camp who dutifully obeyed the demand. The second instance refers to the offenders who agreed to undergo the necessary quarantine.
The assumption is that problematic people are capable of transcending their own anti-social behavior and getting out of the way so as 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 and cannot find it possible to work with the winners may be able at least to step aside and let the board do its work. Complainers can be convinced that if they have nothing good to say, perhaps they can at least say nothing evil. People who hurt inside crave understanding. If given it, they may allow the project to move ahead.
It is painful to fight for recognition and then fail; it hurts deeply to feel each day that everyone else is getting more money, power, prestige, or attention, while you alone are falling behind and in want. It is hard to wake up each morning thinking progress is doomed. People who project these inner disappointments onto institutional life are actually to be pitied and helped, not despised and denigrated. Show them some love while insisting on the greater good, and they just might let the greater good happen.