The Torah instructs the one afflicted with a skin affliction traditionally translated as “leprosy” to repeatedly call out “Impure! Impure!” and to “dwell alone outside the camp.” (Lev. 13:45-46) It seems odd that one who is alone should be obliged to call out anything. Who is supposed to hear it?
“Leprosy” was considered a sign of spiritual contamination, which is the reason the afflicted one cries out “Impure!” According to tradition, the condition was believed to be a divine punishment for a number of sins; most prominently the sin of speaking in a disparaging way about another (even though the remarks are true). On the other hand, disparagement (when true) is not merely a virtue in Judaism, our tradition accords it sacred status. For centuries the prophets of Israel excelled in disparaging the people for their shortcomings, and their words are revered to this day as having been prophetic. Our most vehement critics were our most venerated heros. Why weren’t the prophets afflicted with leprosy?
The difference is leprosy was thought to have afflicted those who criticised others. The prophets were castigating the people as a whole. As part of the community they criticised, they were speaking of themselves as well as toward others. The highest form of criticism is self-criticism, and this is why those afflicted had to shout “Impure!” even if there was no one to hear. They had to learn to hear themselves. Having practiced criticism of others they needed to excel at self-criticism.
The one afflicted called out, “Impure! Impure!” Our rabbis, living in a more urban environment than the agrarian society reflected in the Bible, understood isolation can happen in the midst of a community; not exclusively “outside the camp.” They interpreted the first “Impure!” as a self-condemnation and warning to others in the vicinity. Why the second? In order so that others would hear and pray on behalf of the one afflicted. By disparaging others, s/he discounted their worth. By seeing that they would now pray on his/her behalf, the afflicted one would realize that erroneous assessment caused of the affliction in the first place.
Rabbi Mitch Levine