Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 7:3-20.
Even when people belong to the same religious, ethnic, or national group, they can become marginalized or ostracized in their society. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra insists that anyone who develops a skin disease called tzara-at must be excluded from public worship and live apart from other people. Last week’s Torah portion (Tazria) declares:
All the days that the affliction is in him, he shall be ritually impure. Ritually impure, he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:46)
This skin disease is not always a permanent disfigurement; in fact, in last week’s haftarah, the Aramaean general Na-aman is cured of tzara-at. (See my post 2 Kings: A Religious Conversion.) This week’s Torah portion (Metzora) opens with the ritual for readmitting someone whose tzara-at has healed. But in this week’s haftarah, four men with tzara-at seem to be permanently shut out of their own city, with no way to make a living other than to beg at the city gate.
An army from Aram is besieging Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew), the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. (Na-aman, the Aramaean general in last week’s haftarah, is not mentioned; perhaps he is deployed elsewhere.) Inside the walls of the city, people are dying of starvation. Outside the city gate are four Israelites with tzara-at. Their skin disease is obvious, and the soldiers of Aram also ignore them, since they are only wretched beggars—with no one left to beg from.
And there were four men, metzora-im, at the entrance of the gate. And they said, each man to his rei-a: Why are we sitting here until we die? (2 Kings 7:3)
metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = people with tzara-at (צָרַעַת), a non-communicable disease characterized by patches of white skin.
rei-a (רֵעַּ) = comrade, companion, friend.
Although shunned by the Israelites inside the walls of the town, the four outcasts are companions and friends with each other. They consider their situation:
If we say “Let us enter the city” and starvation is in the city, we shall die there; but if we stay here, we shall die. So now let us go to the camp of Aram and defect. If they let us live, we shall live, and if they put us to death, then we shall die. (2 Kings 7:4)
An extreme patriot might criticize the four men for deciding to defect (literally, “throw themselves down”) to their country’s enemy. Yet Israel has not taken care of them, and their best hope of staying alive is to take a chance on begging for food from the Aramaean army.
An Empty Camp
So they got up at twilight to come to the camp of Aram, and they came up to the edge of the camp of Aram, and hey!—nobody was there! God had made the camp of Aram hear the sound of chariots, the sound of horses, the sound of a great army; and each man had said to his brother: Hey! The king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us! And they had got up and fled at twilight, and they had abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys, [leaving them] in the camp just as it was. And they had fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:5-7)
At twilight, while the four metzora-im were getting up to sneak away from the city, the soldiers of Aram were getting up to run away from their camp, terrified by divine auditory hallucinations.
And those metzora-im came up to the edge of the camp, and they entered one tent and they ate and they drank, and they carried off from there silver and gold and clothing and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent, and they carried off [things] from there and hid them. And then they came back. (2 Kings 7:8)
At first the metzora-im think their problems are over. So what if their own country ostracizes them? In the deserted camp of the Aramaeans they have plenty of food and drink, as well as valuables they can sell later to make a living.
Then they said, each man to his rei-a: We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent, delaying until the light of morning. And we will be found guilty for our offense. So let us go now, and come and tell the household of the king. (2 Kings 7:9)
Their offense is withholding the news from the Israelites shut up in the capital. Even delaying overnight would result in punishment. If they delayed for days, more of their fellow Israelites would starve to death, oblivious of God’s miracle.
Why tell the king?
Commentators differ on whether the four outcasts are motivated by ethics, by utility, or by fear. According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), we will be found guilty means “We will be held guilty by the throne”. They assume the king of Israel will eventually catch them, and they are afraid of the ensuing punishment.
Other commentary claims the decision of the four metzora-im is practical. Only if the city of Samaria functions again can they resume begging from travelers going in and out of the city gate. If they tell the good news at once to the king’s officials, they can count on the continued support of Israelite travelers. If they withhold the information and Samaria finds out later that the Aramaean army is gone, the Israelites will have a grudge against them. And if they load up Aramaean donkeys with Aramaean goods and try to make a new life elsewhere, they will still be discriminated against because of their skin disease (and perhaps also because of their country of origin). Telling the king of Samaria at once and returning to their old lives as beggars at the gate is their most practical option. (And who knows, maybe later they will have a chance to trade the silver and gold they hid.)
Another viewpoint is that the metzora-im make an ethical decision. It would be wrong to let their fellow Israelites starve, when they now have the means to feed them. So what if their own people ostracized them, and will continue to do so? They can still do the right thing.
These four men are such good friends, so good at talking things through with each other, that I think they considered fear, utility, and ethics when they made their decision. I admire their realism in accepting that as long as their skin disease lasts, they will be ostracized, so the best life they can hope for is as beggars at the gate. (I also wish they would take a chance like Na-aman in last week’s haftarah, and dare to ask the prophet Elisha for a cure.)
I also admire them for catching themselves in the midst of looting the abandoned Aramaean camp, and considering the plight of the people inside the city. What I admire most is that they do not enjoy the fact that now they are full and the people who kicked them out are starving. Instead they decide to share the wealth with the very people who refused to share with them—the clear-skinned city dwellers who followed the Levitical law of exclusion with no remediating measures.
None of us lead charmed lives; we are all ostracized or discriminated against at some point. But every person who resists a chance to discriminate against a former or potential enemy makes the world better.
May we all be blessed with the practicality and the ethical determination of the four metzora-im!