Dan Ornstein

“We see what you won’t”: Listening to the outcasts

They were the sick ones, the leprous untouchables cast out mercilessly from the Israelite camp by its terrified citizenry.  “Get to the back of the line, and don’t you dare come near the rest of us!” they roared at the two disfigured monster men.  They reasoned, “Why should we be kind to these diseased underbellies of the healthy world when even God’s cloud of glory refuses to embrace them?”

Some context to this unholy scene is necessary.

The Talmudic sages tell an imaginative back story to the biblical book of Numbers 20-21. We read there about the Israelites’ defeat of the Amorites who sought to deny them passage through their fiefdom along the Arnon River, which is in modern Jordan.

As the Israelites marched over the Arnon, the Amorite military devised a sinister plan to hide in the caves high up in the cliffs overlooking the river and then kill the Israelites as they crossed, leaving them floating in a river of blood.  What they did not know was that the Ark of the Covenant at the front of the Israelite camp had tremendous God-given power to protect the community.  As the Amorites emerged from their caves, the Ark forced the cliffs on both sides of the river to slam together, sandwiching and killing the attacking soldiers inside.  The Arnon flowed with their blood, while not one passing Israelite marcher was harmed.

Neither did a single Israelite see those cliffs smash together, hear the cries of the dying Amorite soldiers, or watch the Arnon fill up with the enemy’s blood, where Israelite blood should have been.  The only ones who saw were those two lepers straggling behind everyone else, denied even the slightest inclusive comfort of standing under God’s cloud of glory.  People on the outside exposed to constant risk, they saw the cliffs, they heard the soldiers, they watched the river turn red.

The Talmud calls the two men in its story by strange one-syllable nonsense names:  Et and Hev. As leprous outsiders, Et and Hev lacked not only equal status, but even the tiniest formality of dignity which a name confers upon its owner.  These marginalized rejects of the oh-so-holy camp of Israel experienced a life saving miracle that no one else bothered or had the capacity to see.  Traumatized by their deliverance from near annihilation, they forgot all the restrictions brutally imposed upon them by the community, as they charged headlong into the middle of the camp and demanded an audience with Moses himself.

“You garbage, you don’t belong here.  Get out!”, they yelled as they pelted the two hapless men with rocks.

“You don’t understand! We’ve seen a miracle down at the Arnon, a miracle you all missed!”

Moses looked on and listened as the horrified, terrified mob abused the two lepers.

“Leave them alone,“ Moses barked.  “As a man slow of speech with uncircumcised lips, I know all too well what it means to look out from one’s loneliness and experience what everyone else ignores.”

“Tell me,” he stuttered to Et and Hev, “Tell me about the miracle that you witnessed at the Arnon River.”

The unattended, unwanted denizens of our society’s margins, – the working and disabled poor, the homeless, the mentally ill shoved mercilessly out of sight and out of mind –  they are suffering the anguish of Et and Hev. Yet these “lepers of modernity” cannot run into the center of our camp to shout, “miracles, miracles!”  This is most painfully the case here in the United States.  Stripped of the balms of good education, job and food security, health care, a fighting chance at a healthy life, the poorest among us barely have the resources to straggle, let alone to catch up and barge in.  Locked out of this camp called prosperity, they cannot take for granted the miracle of simply waking up to another day, a miracle that so many people mindlessly ignore.

For so long, like railing biblical prophets, the outrage of our most marginal citizens condemned us, “How can you not see that we, no less than you, are God’s miracles?” But the full-throated protest and claim on our consciences grew weaker and weaker as the powerful bull- horned Social Darwinist political poison aimed at silencing their voices and sending them out of the camp that modern society is supposed to be.

Is “for so long” coming to an end?  It took the COVID virus to expose, in extremis, the extent to which people’s sense of community has been flattened by political division, alienation from fellow citizens, and the demonization of the Other.  Now, we are all forced into devastating mass social isolation; we are shoved dangerously against mortality’s viral weapon that we cannot even see. Et and Hev are charging unimpeded into our camp because we have gotten a taste of what it means to be them.

Those haranguing outcasts of the Talmudic and contemporary story see what we refuse to see:  every moment we all live is simultaneously filled with miracle and danger.  We cannot pretend this away, we cannot buy our way out of it, we cannot claim privilege as some divine right of kings, and we cannot exempt ourselves from life’s devastations, arguing, “Those things happen to other people.”  Every human being has an absolute claim on the community. As such, we have no choice but to open the camp to society’s most marginal; not out of condescending noblesse oblige but out of a sense of radical empathy.

The pandemic will roll in waves until we are all vaccinated, and the microscopic monster is finally halted.  What will be afterwards?  The return to a status quo society riven along a vicious fault line of inequality between obscene wealth and extreme poverty?  Or a new covenant between government, business and every citizen that refuses anymore to make a mockery of democracy, good governance and public trust?

The choice is in our hands exclusively. In this relentless era of distancing and disaster, we must be ready to listen carefully to the outcasts.  They have something to tell us about what they have seen.


About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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