Transcending behavior

Transcending behavior

Naso | Numbers 4:21-7:89

If you were raised in an age of dental pain — that’s “pAIn” not “pLAn” — you probably still flinch at the word “decay,” a hideous pronouncement of dire things to come.

The fear of decay runs deep. Anthropologists associate it with the horror that premodern societies accord to ritual impurity, 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 impurities was passed along through physical contact. The rabbis, however, date these impurities to Sinai, implying that the problem was not just physical. What changed?

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 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. Leprosy is taken to represent the jealousy that lies behind our speaking ill of others, gonorrhea the extreme selfishness of wanton personal desire at the cost of others. Corpse-contact symbolizes the danger of despair — seeing death as our end, we might mistakenly question the very point of life. Jealousy, selfishness, and despair are indeed disorders that corrode community. Hence the need to put these blights “outside the camp.” 

What goes for society goes for institutions. Organizations regularly find their best efforts spoiled by destructive jealousies, self-centeredness, and nay-saying pessimists whose gloom and doom prevent the good from 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 the warning 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 obeyed the demand, the second to the offenders 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 they are going to lose anyway.

It is painful to want something desperately but know the institution you love is moving in the opposite direction. People who suffer this disappointment 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. 

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