Birds chirped merrily overhead. A large black crow squawked loudly in the early morning light. Kartom instinctively flinched at the sound.
Three young boys hopped in front of Kartom’s tent and chanted: “Baldy! Baldy! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”
Kartom, with his hair, eyebrows and beard completely shaved off, sat on a short stool in front of his tent. A beatific smile returned to his face as he drank in the sounds and noises of other human beings. His head seemed like a solid pink ball; only his dark eyes interrupted the otherwise blank features of his face.
Two men, a tall Datan and a shorter Aviram, approached Kartom’s tent. They walked with a casual stride, yet headed straight for Kartom.
“Kartom!” Datan exclaimed, “I hardly recognized you. How are you? Aviram and I just happened to be walking by. We heard you had just returned from exile. How did it go?”
“Datan! Aviram!” Kartom jumped up and hugged them. “It is so good to see you again. You cannot imagine what it was like. When the white splotches first appeared on my arm I went to the healer. He said it was tzaraat and that I needed to consult with Aaron or his sons. Aaron confirmed that it was tzaraat and then exiled me from the camp! The first few days were not so bad. They were actually kind of relaxing. But then I felt lonelier and lonelier. I felt as if I was vanishing from existence. Like a ghost or even a corpse. I felt as if I were buried alive in an open field. To have no human contact for so long… I thought I would go mad. Only the crows kept me company, and they were not pleasant company. They would circle overhead and then land nearby. Every day they would land closer and closer, as if they were checking whether I was still alive or not.”
“That does sound unpleasant,” Aviram said.
“That was not the worst of it. At first, I could not bear the exclusion from the camp, and not being the center of discussions. No one came to visit or check on me. It was as if I had no importance in the world anymore, as if I were dead already.”
“That is truly bad, not knowing the latest gossip,” Datan agreed. “Did you hear the latest about Yeruvam’s widow?”
“Stop!” Kartom yelled. “That is what caused my tzaraat in the first place! Please, I beg of you, do not mention a word of gossip, not even a hint of gossip.”
“You are kidding,” Datan took a step back from Kartom. “You used to love to gossip. You were always the first with a word about anyone. I even know people that started avoiding you, because they discovered you were talking about them.”
“I know, I know,” Kartom sat back on his stool heavily. “That is why I was infected with the tzaraat. It was my punishment for my constant gossiping. I did not realize how much it affected others and the community around me. That is why I needed to be exiled. I needed to be separated from all those that I gossiped about. I needed to be away from human contact to appreciate it. Now I do. I will not dare suffer such isolation again. I have learned my lesson, and you would do well to learn from it too.”
“How do you know that was the cause of your exile?” Aviram asked. “Perhaps it was for some other reason or perhaps for no reason at all. It is not clear to me that there is a connection between gossiping and tzaraat.”
“Believe what you want, Aviram,” Kartom answered. “I am convinced. I had much time to think and consider the error of my ways. It is clear to me that the tzaraat was a direct result of my gossiping – of talking about others behind their back, of being nosy and wanting to know everyone’s business. It was wrong. The tzaraat and the exile have actually been a blessing, allowing me to change my ways.”
Datan started laughing, a deep, mean laugh. Aviram joined him.
“Have you become pious on us now, Kartom?” Datan asked. “I don’t believe it! You were our inspiration. You had such a talent for gathering information and you retold it in the most interesting and entertaining ways. We missed you greatly in your exile. We missed our sessions together where you told us what was going on in our neighbors’ tents. We miss hearing about family squabbles, about complaints against Moses, about those jealous of Aaron and his sons. How can you betray us like this? We need your insight and your leadership. Your cunning and acumen…”
“Enough!” Kartom yelled. “Isn’t it obvious I was plagued with tzaraat because of my sinfuls ways?”
“You are mistaken, Kartom,” Datan replied. “Moses and his gang have poisoned your mind. They have filled your head with nonsense. They knew you were associated with us. They knew you were a key informant and organizer and they have made up this spiritual nonsense as an explanation for your unfortunate skin condition.”
“I will not speak further on the subject,” Kartom sat up straighter. “If you wish to gossip or to speak ill of others then I must ask you to leave. I refuse to resume a lifestyle of baseless slander.” Kartom closed his lips tightly.
Datan and Aviram looked at Kartom with wide eyes and then looked at each other.
Datan then shrugged his shoulders and turned to Aviram.
“The time he spent outside the camp with the crows has truly addled his brain,” Datan commented. “We are wasting our time with him. He is of no further use to us.”
Without another word Datan and Aviram turned their backs on Kartom and strode away.
“What was it you were going to say about Yeruvam’s widow?” Aviram asked.
“Apparently she has been showing interest in young Adulem,” Datan answered.
“Really? What an odd couple they would make.” Aviram mused.
“Absolutely,” Datan agreed. “She would be much better off as a second wife for someone.”
“Datan.” Aviram stopped walking. “What is that on your arm?”
“Where? I don’t see anything.”
“There, on your left arm, next to the edge of your sleeve. It looks like a white mark on your skin.”
“What?!” Datan pulled back his left sleeve and saw a white discoloration on his skin, three fingerbreadths in width. He started rubbing on it vigorously, trying to get it off.
“That might be tzaraat, you know,” Aviram took a step away from Datan.
High above Datan’s head, a large black crow squawked merrily.
* * * * * *
Leviticus 13:1-3; 45-46
1 And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzaraat, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. 3 And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of tzaraat; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
45 And the person with tzaraat in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.
8 And he that is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean; and after that he may come into the camp, but shall dwell outside his tent seven days. 9 And it shall be on the seventh day, that he shall shave all his hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows, even all his hair he shall shave off; and he shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and he shall be clean. 10 And on the eighth day he shall take two he-lambs without blemish, and one ewe-lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour for a meal-offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil. 11 And the priest that cleanseth him shall set the man that is to be cleansed, and those things, before the Lord, at the door of the tent of meeting.
Bamidbar Rabbah 18:12
Datan and Aviram had two characteristics: impudence and defiance.
Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 167
Whatever you can accuse of those evil men, accuse them.