The Numbers:13 Project
Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the LORD’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not dashed on him, he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. Numbers 19:13
If you have ever eaten those orange fluorescent cheese-flavored puff snacks, you know how this goes. You always begin the same way – carefully picking up one or two and popping them into your mouth. You may lick the detritus off your finger-tips or wipe it off with a paper napkin. Then you go back in for more. Somewhere, your discipline fails and by the time you are finished – even with those little bags that come with a sandwich – a first-year law intern could get you convicted of conspicuous consumption.
Washing your hands and face will not resolve the problem immediately. Unless you are very lucky, even after multiple washings the evidence is visible around your fingernails and somewhere on the front of your shirt or blouse. Often, it is a day or two before part of you is not artificially orange. You just can’t get rid of the stain. The uncleanliness is still upon you.
Obviously, the Bible is concerned with the ritual pollution that comes from contact with a corpse. There is a designated procedure for returning a person to a state of ritual cleanliness. Death’s impurity clings to a person as if it were Cheeto dust – only invisible.
We may scoff at this set of ancient superstitions and imaginary diseases if we like but I think we are motivated to do so only because we have changed the referents from the original. We are not spooked by death any more. Most of us outside of the medical field rarely have reason to be in contact with a corpse, but we have all swatted a mosquito, stepped on a roach or disposed of a trapped rodent. As far as Jewish law is concerned, the cooties of death do not rely on a human body. As far as we are concerned, there is a lot less to be concerned about then there was during a time that (we believe, at least) people didn’t have an enlightened understanding of death.
I don’t want to argue that particular point. I do want to point out instead that invisible stains can cling to us and pollute us as if we were covered in orange dust.
Aziz Ansari is a very funny comedian who almost lost his career after being publicly accused of sexual assault on a date. He speaks of it very frankly in his “comeback” concert, and not at all dismissively or mockingly. In the end, he admits to being overwhelmingly embarrassed and reexamining all sorts of things in his past. Skillfully (in my opinion) he eases his way into a very funny and sometimes uncomfortable examination of what aspects of personal conduct should or should not make a difference in our perceptions and opinions of public figures.
Does it matter to the enjoyment of R Kelly’s music that he seems to have a history of sexually abusing girls? Should we excise the place of Michael Jackson in our playlists because he was arguably a pedophile? And of course, there are others – Bill Cosby, Catherine Pugh, Jose Canseco, John Edwards – who amassed admirable bodies of work in their fields before crossing a line that called their public accomplishments into question because of their private behavior.
This question is not new. The Bible calls the character of Moses into question at the very beginning of the story of his adult life. Having defended a slave by killing the taskmaster (and hiding the body), his attempt to intervene between two quarreling slaves buys him the very snarky question about whether he plans to kill them as well. Rachel, Reuben, Miriam, Jephthah, Saul, David and so many others are equivocal figures, dusted with the residue of misdeeds and paying a price because it was the only way to wash away the stain.
Fewer and fewer behaviors leave an indelible pigment on the character of public (and private) figures. Gone are the days when public judgment about divorce, drug use, mental illness and physical disability are considered blemishes in most fields. Evaporating are the disapprovals of sexual orientation, eschewing faith in God and even some criminal convictions for people in public life. Rightly, we are evolving to understand the difference between malicious conduct and unavoidable circumstances, and between arrogance and repentance.
What is not disappearing is that stain that comes from repeated behavior that leaves behind some measure of injury. Once it is all over you, that Cheeto dust is almost impossible to scrub away.