Verse 5:1 the book of Bamidbar reads;
God spoke to Moses, saying; “Command the Children of Israel that they must expel anyone from the camp with tzaraas, anyone who is a tzav, and anyone who is tammei l’nefesh… Beyond the camp you shall send them, and they shall not defile their camps in which I dwell…“
I’ve always found it a bit disturbing that the Torah’s solution to an individual with certain ailments is to put them into solitude. Granted in modern day, we quarantine people who are sick to prevent contamination. But the Torah’s seclusion seems to be more punitive than preventative. But is that really the case?
Looking a little closer at the quoted verse, let’s define our terms. I’ve talked previously about tzaraas, and how it’s not leprosy despite what many biblical translations say. The main idea is that it’s a skin affliction of a spiritual nature. The second group of people, a tzav, is someone who has had an unusual seminal emission. Also of a spiritual nature, this Biblical STD was believed to be caused by someone with a less than chaste behavior. Finally we have tammei l’nefesh, or someone who has come in contact with a dead body.
According to Rashi, “expel them from the camp” is a little more technical than the simple statement might make one think. The three afflictions weren’t all banned in the same way. I’m going to go into details, but first I need to explain Israel’s encampment in the desert.
Referring to this picture we see three distinct areas. In the center was the Mishkan, the portable Temple where God’s presence (known as the Shechinah) resided. Clearly the holiest area. Next, pictured in orange, was where the tribe of Levi encamped. The Levites (or Levium for plural in Hebrew) were dedicated to performance of rituals and maintenance of the Mishkan, so their encampment was centered immediately around the structure. The final area is where the remaining tribes of Israel lived and conducted business.
According to Rashi, each affliction had different levels of banishment. The person afflicted with tzaraas had to be completely removed from the camp as the verse seems to state. However, the tzav was only restricted from the inner two sections and could reside among the tribes of Israel. The person who was unclean due to handling the dead was only restricted from entering the holiest section and experiencing God’s presence.
So why are there these distinctions and what do they mean? The Ishpitzer Rebbe, a 19th century Polish rabbinic leader gives the following ideas.
The tzav is a person who is rendered impure due to the tzav emission. Spiritual in nature, the cause of the affliction was promiscuity. Though this person was barred from the two holier sections of the camp, they were allowed to remain with the rest of Israel. Why? The idea is that though this person certainly has issues they need to fix, their drive is still good, but just needs to be redirected. By losing their access to experience holiness, hopefully they might realize what they are truly lacking and reconnect in a more meaningful way.
The person who is tammei l’nefesh is interesting because they didn’t do anything wrong. Coming into contact with the dead automatically makes a person impure. But these people were doing mitzvahs; carrying the bones of Joseph and burying the dead. Why should they be punished?
Though it is true they were “doing the dirty work” there’s still the reality that there are consequences. I had a friend who worked in the Peace Corps shortly after college. While there she had a very difficult experience that forever changed her. The same is true for veterans, social workers, and really anyone who tries to tackle the darkest problems head on. Working with difficult situations has the potential to make us jaded, even bitter. However, in order to experience Godliness, we must be in a state of joy. So between being around the dead and going to ultimate holiness, we need a separation period to come back. This individual needs seven days to readjust. Just like the seven days of sitting shiva.
Finally there’s the person afflicted with tzaraas. There were many causes for tzaraas, but the most known cause was lashon hara (or speaking ill of other people). At its core, lashon hara is about negativity. If someone not only can’t see the blessings around them, but then spreads their negativity it can be infectious and permeate to other people. That negativity has no place within the Jewish nation. Negativity leads to pessimism which then ultimately leads to inaction.
That’s not what the Jewish people are about. Jews are about fixing the world, spreading light, and getting closer to God. Negativity is diametrically opposed to all of that. For this person, they must be isolated from the camp. Remember, in the desert, the camp was surrounded by clouds of God that cooled and refreshed the Jews. Food fell from the sky. There was a place to see God’s presence mere feet from your door. To be completely removed from the camp means that that individual was cut off from all of that miracle. Hopefully their seclusion allowed them to reflect on the incredible blessings they regularly enjoyed.
So whether we have just come through a dark time, maybe have our priorities a little out of whack, or find ourselves entrenched in negativity, a little bit of space just might do us some good. If however we feel maybe we’ve been too disconnected lately, perhaps looking at what we do have, what blessings God has given us, and making space to appreciate those things, it might just give us the realignment to come back.