Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: A Response to Rejection

April 12, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | 1 Comment
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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.

Ruins of the City of Samaria

Ruins of the City of Samaria

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.

Metzora-im at an enemy tent

Metzora-im enter an enemy tent

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!

 

 

 

 

Haftarat Tazria—2 Kings: A Religious Conversion

April 6, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 1 Comment
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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 Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:42-5:19.

What inspires someone to convert to a religion?

For Na-aman, an Aramaean general from Damascus who converts to the religion of Israel in this week’s haftarah, the quick answer is that he decides to convert after an Israelite prophet heals him. But the full story runs deeper.

soldier 2Na-aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man [who stood] before his lord with a high rank, because God had given victory to Aram, and the man was a powerful warrior—[and] a man with skin disease. (2 Kings 5:1)

His skin disease is tzara-at , which is a serious ritual impurity in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria; someone who has it must live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, and cover his upper lip—even though the disease is not contagious. The rules in Aram may have been more lenient, but we can assume the disfiguring disease carried some social stigma.

And a raiding party of Aram had gone out and captured from the land of Israel a young na-arah, and she [stood] before the wife of Na-aman. And she said to her lady: If only my lord [stood] before the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would remove his skin disease. (2 Kings 5:2-3)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = slave-woman; any girl or young woman during the stage after puberty but before her first pregnancy.

The slave-girl is the one who knows what Na-aman needs to do to get rid of his disfiguring skin disease, a source of social stigma in the ancient Near East. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, who then tells his master, the king of Aram.

And he came and told his lord, saying: This and this she said, the na-arah who is from the land of Israel. (2 Kings 5:4)

The king of Aram writes a letter for Na-aman to take to the king of Israel, perhaps to guarantee his safe passage through a foreign country. Eventually Na-aman and his servants arrive at the house of the prophet Elisha.

Jordan River

Jordan River

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the skin disease.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:9-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings; A Sign of Arrogance.)

On the other hand, he is willing to listen to advice from servants, including the Israelite girl who told him about Elisha in the first place. This time the grown men traveling with Na-aman as servants advise him.

The Cleansing of Naaman, woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica

The Cleansing of Naaman,
woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica

But his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a na-ar, and he was ritually-pure. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:13-15)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave; any boy or unmarried young man. (The male equivalent of na-arah.)

The Talmud considers Na-aman’s statement a declaration of religious conversion. Before Na-aman makes this declaration, he is compared to a boy or a slave, put on the same footing as his Israelite na-arah. Only from that position can he actually meet the prophet and “stand before” him, as earlier in the story subordinates stood before their masters. And only now does Na-aman know that the god of Israel is the only god on earth.

What gives him this knowledge or belief? I think it is not just the miraculous healing he experiences, but the fact that he receives healing only by setting aside his identity as an important Aramaean general and becoming an obedient “boy”.

And Na-aman said: Will it not be given, please, to your servant, enough soil to burden a pair of mules?—because your servant will never again make a rising-offering or an animal sacrifice to other gods, only to God. (2 Kings 5:17)

The only way Na-aman knows how to worship a god is to make offerings in the land of that god. Since he must return to Damascus to serve his king, he asks permission to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him. Elisha says Go in peace.

*

My own conversion to Judaism 30 years ago was mostly—but not entirely—different from Na-aman’s conversion. I was brought up as an atheist, but during my twenties I felt restless and dissatisfied. As a philosophy major in college, I had reasoned my way to the conclusion that the standard definition of God was contradictory and therefore described an impossibility. Yet every once in a while I was surprised by a flash of intuition that the universe was one and alive.  It was a sudden gut feeling, not a rational idea.  I felt an increasing need for something like religion, for some other connection with the ineffable. Thus my longing for a religion came not from my head, but from my guts.

In western religions and culture, the body is often considered inferior to the mind. We assume that the mind makes a decision and the body carries it out, like a servant or a beast of labor.

But sometimes the body speaks first. The great general Na-aman’s own body develops a skin disease. Then the least of his servants, the captive Israelite girl, tells him who to go to for a cure. And he follows her advice.

When he arrives in the foreign land of Israel, he is instructed first by the prophet’s servant, then by his own servants. If he had not obeyed them and bathed in the Jordan, Na-aman would have gone home unhealed and unconverted.

If I had not listened to my gut feelings, even though I viewed them as inferior to my rational mind, I would have remained a dissatisfied atheist with a dry life. Instead I began reading about various religions and their attitudes toward life in this world. And I fell in love with Judaism, which seemed to share my irrational, gut conviction that nothing is more important than doing the right thing, regardless of any possible future reward.

It was a good match. I converted 30 years ago, and I am still a passionate Jew.

Part of my conversion was to immerse myself underwater in a mikveh—rather like Na-aman’s seven immersions in the Jordan River. Then I affirmed my inner knowledge that all divinity is one by reading the Shema out loud before three witnesses. This was not so different from Na-aman telling Elisha: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel.

I was not brought up to slaughter and burn animals for God, thank God. But perhaps whenever I pray with other Jews, I am symbolically worshiping God on the soil of our religion. And even as my mind occupies itself with translating the Hebrew prayers into meanings I can accept, my body-servant, my heart and gut, rise in exaltation.

 

Haftarah for Metzora –2 Kings: Insiders and Outsiders

April 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | Leave a comment
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Last week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion) tells the story of Na-aman, an Aramean general whose skin disease, tzara-at, disappears when he gives up his arrogance to follow the advice of the prophet Elisha. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)

Although Aram and Israel are at peace when Na-aman comes to Elisha for a cure, hostilities resume later in the second book of Kings. Eventually an Aramean army besieges Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Trapped inside the city walls, the Israelites begin to run out of food. The price of food skyrockets, and two women eat a child.

Meanwhile, four men with tzara-at are living in exile outside the city walls. The Torah says that tzara-at, unlike all other skin diseases, is an affliction caused by the touch of God. The afflicted must live alone, outside the camp or town, until God removes the disease and a priest declares them ritually pure.

God may also afflict houses with tzara-at, according to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“Someone with tzara-at”). No one may live in a house with tzara-at in the walls.

Why does God touch people and houses with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus/Vayikra does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis say tzara-at is caused by slander, and then list six other causes: bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. All of these bad deeds or bad attitudes not only sin against God, but also poison one’s relationships with other people. No wonder the Torah requires a metzora to stay away from the community.

In this week’s haftarah, the four men with tzara-at who live just outside the besieged city of Samaria are also starving. They come to the city gate, but they receive neither food nor a check-up from a priest to see whether they have healed and can come back inside. The haftarah picks up the story as they consider their options.

Four men were metzora-im at the entrance of the gate, and each one said to his neighbor: Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say “Let’s come into the city”, and the famine is in the city, then we will die there. But if we sit here, then we will die. So now, let’s go and surrender ourselves to the camp of Aram. If they let us live, we live; and if they put us to death, then we die. (2 Kings 7:3-4)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = the plural of metzora  (מְצֹרָע) = someone afflicted with tzara-at.

In other words, the four men decide to defect to the Arameans on the chance that they will survive. Although most commentary criticizes the metzora-im for their disloyalty to Israel, I think they are far more ethical and less disloyal than the two Samarian women inside the city who resort to cannibalism. After all, the men do not even consider killing any Israelites in order to eat them.

So they got up in the twilight to come to the Aramaean camp. They came up to the edge of the Aramaean camp, and hey! Nobody was there! (2 Kings 7:5)

God had made the Aramean soldiers hear the sounds of an approaching army, complete with chariots and horses. Assuming that the king of Israel had hired mercenary forces, the Arameans had fled for their lives, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, and tents.

The four would-be defectors enter a tent, eat and drink their fill, then take the silver, gold, and clothing and hide it. After they have looted a second tent, it occurs to all four of them that they could rescue the starving Israelites in the city.

Then they said, each one to his neighbor: We are not doing right. Today is a day of good news, and we are delaying it. If we delay until the light of morning, we will be found guilty. So now, let’s go, and we will come to the house of the king and tell it. (2 Kings 7:9)

The men have two motivations for reporting that the enemy has fled: because it is the right thing to do, and because they do not want to be found guilty if they delay until someone on the city wall can see that the Aramean camp is deserted.

The gatekeepers of the city do not let in the metzora-im. Nevertheless, they shout out the good news, and the gatekeepers pass it on to the king’s house inside. Then the city of Samaria empties as everyone rushes through the gate to loot the deserted Aramean camp.

There is no indication of what the four men did that led God to punish them with tzara-at in the first place. By the time they appear in the haftarah, they seem fairly decent; they do not consider either using violence against anyone to get food, or taking revenge against the city that excluded them. Nor do they exhibit any of the seven causes of tzara-at listed in the Talmud, unless their looting of abandoned Aramean tents counts as robbery, a word used to mean taking forcible possession.

But what about the cannibalism that occurs inside the city just before the haftarah begins? One Samarian woman complains to the king of Israel:

That woman said to me: Give your son and we will eat him today; and my son we will eat tomorrow. And we cooked my son and we ate him. Then I said to her the next day: Give your son and we will eat him. But she hid her son! (2 Kings 6:28-29)

These two women commit five of the seven anti-social deeds on the list:

Slander: The actual idiom in the Talmud is lashon hara = the evil tongue. The woman who complains to the king is guilty of lashon hara because she points out the other woman and defames her.

Bloodshed: Obviously both women are guilty of murder.

Swearing falsely: The first woman complains that the second woman made a false vow when she promised they would eat her son the next day.

Incest: The actual idiom in the Talmud is “exposing the nakedness”. Although incest does not technically occur in the story, the first woman does expose her son’s vulnerability and violate his body.

Arrogance: Both women assume their lives are more valuable than the child’s life.

I would argue that the women inside the city deserve tzara-at more than the men outside the walls. When everyone rushes out of the city to loot the Aramean camp, it is echoes the requirement in the Torah portion Metzora that a house with tzara-at must be emptied and abandoned until its walls become pure again.

I know that I, like most human beings, feel as if some people are too awful to tolerate, and I want to exclude them from my community or my in-group—at least until they show signs of overcoming their anti-social traits. No doubt sometimes my diagnosis is correct. But I must remember that sometimes my in-group might be more at fault than the person I want to exclude. The affliction might be inside my own walls.

May we all keep the gates of our souls open to new developments, and close our gates only when we really are besieged.

Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 3 Comments
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There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.

Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their period of being tamei is over). But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.

And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.

nega (נֶגַע) =  an affliction caused by the touch of God.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.

The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.

Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.

Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at. The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.

Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.

But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.

Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)

Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)

This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.

He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.

Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, like Na-aman.

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