Each of us is a source of contagion. Whether or not we are aware of that fact, something passes from us into the life of every person we encounter. Though there is no instrument capable of measuring our effect upon others, we feel we affect and probably infect those with whom we come into contact.
It is within our power to stir in those we meet a kindness which otherwise may never have been evoked or to fortify those we meet in their cynicism. We can kindle their minds and enlighten their eyes or we may justify them in their prejudice. We can encourage faith or stifle hope. We can raise their sights to the mountains or drag their spirits down into the valleys of tears. We can humiliate others or call them to greatness. We can illumine with friendship or darken with suspicion. We can instruct with integrity or victimize with deception. We can awaken a mind or lull it to sleep. We can arouse to righteousness or compel to mistrust. We man humanize or brutalize those to whom we come near.
The Torah describes in explicit detail the symptoms and treatment of a skin disease akin to leprosy. The narrative recounts that a person suspected of being infected must be isolated for a while until the diagnosis could be confirmed. (Shades of COVID-19!) Should the person suspected be found to be afflicted, that person was compelled to reside outside the camp for fear that the dreaded contagion would spread to others. Once the disease had run its course, the victim underwent rites of purification. Once rehabilitated, the person in recovery could resume a rightful place in the community.
The Sages teach, however, that there is more to infectious disease than discoloration, scalls, and boils. The Sages teach that those who falsely accuse others – those who act on rumor, spread vile lies and slander – are moral lepers and should find no place in the camp of Israel. The text states that those stricken with the contagion must call out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others from touching him, to stay away. It was not the priest who detects the disease and treats the symptoms but the leper him or herself who utters the warning to protect others from potential harm.
To our shame, in our today there are too many self-appointed detectors of impurity who call out others accusingly, and say “You are unclean! You are anathema! You must be segregated, isolated, and abandoned.” In our world moral and spiritual leprosy have reached epidemic proportions. Words used cavalierly and hurtfully have cost many their reputations and livelihood. The Torah has never been more relevant or insightful.