Rejection. It is one of society’s most potent tools for regulating and constraining undesirable behavior. As children, we knew that misconduct carried the risk of a parental glare of disapproval, and perhaps banishment to our bedrooms. As adults, the scepter of imprisonment hangs over would-be criminals as a deterrent for all sorts of illegal behavior. But how effective is enforced isolation in preventing crime, and perhaps more importantly, invoking a feeling of regret in the offender? Psychologists and social researchers are re-evaluating this age-old method of dealing with crime. Banishment and imprisonment may remove the criminal from the midst of society, thereby limiting the risks to the rest of us from his objectionable behavior; however, once separated from the community, the offender feels little motivation to adapt to the behavioral standards of society at large. Through isolating him, we are effectively cutting him out of civilization. Our rejection may not be an incentive to improve, but rather a license to plunge further into the nether world of crime.

The Torah also has its proscribed system of isolation for certain offenses. Tzaraas[1] was a divinely ordained affliction that came upon an individual who was guilty of slanderous talk against his fellow man.[2] Upon being declared impure, the leper was sent out of all three camps[3] and kept completely secluded from the rest of society. His punishment corresponded to his crime. His slanderous talk resulted in friction and disunion between people; his penalty was enforced separation from the community.

Yet it is important to note the process whereby the leper was declared impure. One who discovers a suspicious spot on his skin must have it inspected by a learned scholar. If the sage determines that the spot does indeed have all the symptoms of tzaraas, he then presents it to the Kohen, who declares him impure. The Kohen may be completely ignorant of the details of the laws regarding tzaraas, yet the individual is not declared impure unless the Kohen pronounces him as such. Even if the Kohen merely echoes the decision of the learned scholar, it is his affirmation, rather than the scholar’s learned opinion, that finalizes the person’s status.

It is puzzling why the Torah predicates the declaration of impurity upon the Kohen. The Kohen, after all, was distinct in his special status of purity. The Kohen performed the most exalted and refined tasks in the Holy Temple, and was obligated to refrain from defiling himself through any contact with ritual impurity. Why must the Kohen be the one to declare him impure?

The Kohen’s mandatory involvement sheds light on the Torah’s view of societal isolation as a punishment and deterrent for wrongdoing. The Kohen’s function, aside from his service in the Temple, was to serve as a conduit of blessings for the Jewish People.[4] The Kohanim have maintained this role throughout Jewish history, through their recital of the priestly blessing in the synagogue.  Before commencing the Priestly Blessing, the Kohanim recite a benediction concluding with the words:

“Who has commanded us to bless the Jewish people, with love.”[5]

If the Kohen feels that he is lacking in a measure of love for even one member of the community, he is obliged to step down and refrain from uttering the Priestly Blessing.[6] Only the Kohen, known as a “man of kindness,[7]” has the authority to declare a person impure, resulting in his banishment from the camp of the Jewish people.

The Kohen’s pronouncement is based upon the opinion of the learned scholar, well versed in the myriad laws of various skin conditions and their ritual status; nevertheless, it is the Kohen who is given the final say over matters of impurity. The Kohen’s heart, overflowing with love for his fellow man, will not allow him to make such a proclamation lightly. He will be fully aware of the power of his words, and will leave no stone unturned to prevail upon the scholar to find some loophole, some escape hatch to avoid declaring another Jew impure. And if, for all his pains, he is unable to avoid uttering the word “impure,” we can be assured that he will likewise spare no effort to facilitate the purification of the leper.

Isolation and rejection are almost completely ineffective means of ameliorating criminal behavior when there is an absence of one critical ingredient: love. Once an individual feels cast out of his society, he loses his greatest source of motivation and encouragement to lead a wholesome, productive life. The Kohen is there to teach us that even when censuring and condemning improper behavior, we must never lose sight of our primary role: to extend a helping and supporting hand to every member of society, no matter what his or her status may be.

An individual who is able to utter a condemnation of another human being must carefully examine his or her own heart. Those who are lacking in love and compassion are incapable of coming to a true conclusion regarding another person’s status. Instead, they will succeed only in driving others further away with their unrelenting, critical attitudes. In fact, one who is not qualified to render someone “impure,” and does so anyway, is guilty of slander, the very offense that incurs the penalty of tzaraas.

Isolation is enforced for one class of people—those who are unable to tolerate and accept others. Those who feel incapable of reaching out and embracing every member of the community should take a hiatus for themselves to invoke a feeling of clemency in their hearts, and avoid hurting others with the sting of their bitterness and condemnations.

There is no telling how deeply we can impact and influence all of society when we keep our hearts open to all with kindness and compassion. The Kohen, a man of kindness, guides us in attaining this exalted level of sensitivity. It is this form of unconditional love that will obliterate the primary cause of our long exile. For exile is a state of conflict and disharmony, where we feel cut off emotionally from each other and even from our own inner selves. When we consciously attempt to invoke in ourselves a feeling of true acceptance and love for all individuals, we free ourselves and society from the entrapment of isolation and disconnection.

So the next time you encounter any form of imperfection in another human being, don’t turn away. In the manner of the Kohen, look beyond the external blemish, into the soul. Your kind eye and loving heart will accomplish far more than your most severe condemnations. These small acts of unity and acceptance have the power to change the landscape of society from a cold and vicious jungle to a place where peace, serenity, and harmony will reign.

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Chaya Shuchat.


[1] Although commonly translated as “leprosy,” tzaraas was actually a spiritual illness with certain physical manifestations, which has no counterpart today.

[2] There were actually ten or more different offenses that carried the penalty of tzaraas, including idol-worship, blasphemy, and murder, but the most severe form of tzaraas was reserved for those guilty of slanderous talk.

[3] In the desert, the Jews camped in a formation of three camps. The central and holiest camp was the Machane Shechina, where the Mishkanwas erected. Surrounding the Mishkan was the Machane Leviya, where all members of the tribe of Levi camped. The Levite camp was surrounded by the Machane Yisroel, where the remainder of the Jewish people encamped. Once the Jews settled in the Land of Israel, the leper was sent out of the city limits.

[4] Eikev 10:8; see Rashi on verse.

[5] Sotah 39:1,See also: text of priestly blessing, Siddur Tehillas Hashem, p. 268

[6] Shulchan Aruch Admur Hazaken, Ch. 128, law 19.

[7] See Berachah, 33:8; Zohar III, 145:2, and other sources


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