Haftarat Vayeira–2 Kings: Dance of Pride

November 17, 2016 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,
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’s Torah portion is Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:21), and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:1-37.

Elisha is not only a prophet, but a miracle-worker. He and his mentor, Elijah, are the only characters in the Hebrew Bible who create supernatural wonders on their own initiative—yet with God’s approval.

This week’s haftarah relates two of Elisha’s miracles. First the widow of one of Elisha’s disciples begs him for help. She is in debt to a creditor who is coming to take her two sons as slaves. Elisha speaks to her simply and directly, saying:

Jug from 9th-century Israel

Jug from 9th-century Israel

What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house. (2 Kings 4:2)

He has no problem arranging a miracle for the poor and desperate woman, turning her single small jar of oil into so much oil that when she sells it she can pay off her whole debt, with money left over. Magnanimity comes easily to Elisha.

In the next story, the woman who approaches Elisha is wealthy and content. Instead of asking for help, she is determined to help Elisha. He becomes the recipient of her magnanimity.

It happened one day [that] Elisha passed by Shuneim, and there was a gedolah woman, vatachazek him to eat a meal. Then it happened whenever he passed by, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy man of God. Let us make, please, an upper room with a wall, and let us put there a bed for him, and a table and a chair and a lampstand, and it will happen whenever he comes to us, he will turn aside there”. And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room …(2 Kings 4:8-11)

gedolah (גְדוֹלָה) = great, significant, big.

vatachazek (וַתַּחֲזֶק) = and she took hold of, and she prevailed over, and she seized.

The woman of Shuneim is probably gedolah, significant in her town, because she and her husband are wealthy enough to build a walled chamber on top of their roof as a guest room. She may also be called gedolah because she is unusually forceful for a woman in the ancient kingdom of Judah. She does not politely ask Elisha if he would like to come to her house for a meal; she makes him do it, either by refusing to take no for an answer or by actually grabbing him.

But feeding Elisha is not enough for her. So she politely tells her husband she wants to build and furnish a guest room for him. Her husband’s reply is not recorded, but judging by the rest of the story, he never stands in her way. In the next sentence, Elisha’s guest room is complete.

What is the woman of Shuneim’s motivation for this extreme hospitality? One clue is that she calls Elisha a “man of god”, an ish elohim. Maybe she is religious, and sees taking care of a man of God as a way to contribute to the cause of glorifying the God of Israel.

House in ancient Israel

House in ancient Israel

And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room, and he lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his manservant: “Call that woman of Shuneim.” And he called her, and she stood before him. (2 Kings 4:11-12)

Elisha is already famous in the kingdoms of both Judah and Israel. Now he has his own servant. He sends Geichazi to summon her, instead of going downstairs himself.  He does not refer to his hostess by name (and we never learn it). When she climbs up the ladder to his room, he is reclining on the bed as if he were a king.

Putting on even more airs, Elisha does not speak to her directly, but only through his servant.

And he [Elisha] said to him: “Say, please, to her: Hey! You have troubled yourself with all this trouble for us. What is there to do for you? To speak for you to the king? Or to the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13)

There is no indication that the woman needs anything from the king or the army commander. I believe Elisha is showing off, letting her know that he has influence with these exalted persons.

The woman is unimpressed. She merely replies:

I am dwelling among my own people. (2 Kings 4:13)

She does not need Elisha’s influence because she is already well-known and respected in Shuneim.  She then goes back downstairs, making it clear that she does not want any favors from the “man of God”.

And he [Elisha] said: “Then what to do for her?” And Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” Then he [Elisha] said: “Call her”. And he called her, and she stood in the doorway. (2 Kings 4:14-15)

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Geichazi assumes that the woman’s husband is too old to have successful intercourse with her. This story is a good match for the Torah portion Vayeira because in Vayeira, Sarah stands in the doorway of the tent and laughs silently when she hears a guest tell her 99-year-old husband, Abraham, that the following year she will have a son.

The guest, who is actually divine, hears Sarah’s thoughts and tells Abraham:

Is anything too extraordinary for God? Lamo-eid hazeh I will return to you, ka-eit chayyah, and Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:14)

lamo-eid hazeh (לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה) = at this appointed time.

ka-eit chayyah (כָּעֵת חַיָּה) = in the same season of life. (An idiom for “at the same time next year”.)

Elisha borrows language from the Torah portion to announce his own miracle, and finally addresses the woman instead of confining his remarks to his servant.

And he said: “Lamo-eid hazeh, ka-eit chayyah, you will be embracing a son.” Then she said: “No, my lord, Man of the God. Don’t you lie to your maidservant.” (2 Kings 4:16)

Through the language of this annunciation, Elisha is comparing himself with Abraham’s guest, an angel who turns into the voice of God. I suspect that the woman of Shuneim rejects his message because she knows Elisha is only a man of God, not an angel. She puts him in his place.

She may not even want a son. Most women in Biblical times needed a son to support them in old age, since they rarely had property of their own. But as commentator Tikva Frymer Kensky pointed out, the woman of Shuneim appears to be independent, and may even own the land her husband farms for her.

Nevertheless, she has a son the following year. When the boy is old enough to follow his father around outside, but still young enough to fit on his mother’s lap, he suddenly has a pain in his head. His father does not take it seriously, and merely tells a servant to carry him back to his mother.

And he sat on her knees until noon. Then he died. And she took him up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and she closed [the door] behind him, and she left. (2 Kings 4:20-21)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

The woman realizes that now she does need a favor from Elisha, and she has a right to demand it. When she reaches him on Mount Carmel, she brushes off Elisha’s servant Geichazi.

And she came up to the man of God on the mountain, vatachazek his feet… (2 Kings 4:27)

Once again the woman seizes Elisha, but this time instead of making him accept a favor from her, she requests one from him.

Geichazi tries to pull her away, but Elisha tells his servant:

“Leave her alone, because her soul is bitter, and God has hidden it from me and has not told me [about it].”

Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say: Don’t you be careless with me?” (2 Kings 4:27-28)

Elisha's Servant Geichazi, engraving by Bernhard Rode

Elisha’s Servant Geichazi, by Bernhard Rode

That is enough of a clue for Elisha. He realizes her son has died, and he gives his staff to Geichazi with orders to place it on the boy’s face. But the woman knows that will not work.  She insists on taking Elisha to her house in person. He still does not speak to her directly, but he follows her. When they arrive, the boy is still laid out dead on Elisha’s bed.

Elisha’s pride has taken two blows; first God did not tell him anything was wrong, and then his idea for a miraculous revivification did not work. His benefactress knew more than he did.

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

All he can do now is imitate one of his mentor Elijah’s successful miracles, and hope it works for him, too. He goes into the guest room, shuts the door on Geichazi and the woman, and prays to God. Then he climbs up and lies down on the boy, mouth to mouth and hands to hands. (Too much time has elapsed for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Elisha is attempting to send some of his own life-spirit into the child.)

After he does this a second time, the boy sneezes and opens his eyes. Elisha calls Geichazi and says: “Call that woman of Shuneim.”  It sounds as if Elisha is resuming his proud distance from his benefactress.  But when she arrives, he speaks to her, saying: “Pick up your son.” (2 Kings 4:36)

And she came and she fell at his feet and she bowed low to the ground and she picked up her son and she left. (2 Kings 4:37)

Although she bows to him, it is only his due as a man of God who has brought a dead child to life. She retains her dignity by rising and carrying her son away.

Does Elisha give up some of his prickly pride about receiving help from the woman of Shuneim? The story ends here, but later the second book of Kings reports:

And Elisha spoke to the woman whose son he had revived, saying: “Get up and go, you and your household, and sojourn wherever you will sojourn, because God has called for a seven-year famine, and even now it comes to the land.”  And the woman got up and did as the man of God spoke… (2 Kings 8:1-2)

God is speaking to Elisha, and Elisha is speaking to the woman of Shuneim, treating her with consideration, even if she did once force him to accept favors from her.

*

Maybe I see this haftarah as a story of prickly male pride because I was born in the 1950’s and I’ve seen that dynamic again and again—though less often in this 21st century. On the other hand, I sometimes find it difficult to accept help myself, because I, too, want to appear competent and in control, not weak and needy.

This week’s haftarah demonstrates that there are times when even the great woman of Shuneim, or Elisha the man of God, needs help. In order for we humans to do our work best, we need three things: the strength to ask for help when we need it, the strength to accept help whether we need it or not, and the compassion to give help when we can.

 

 

Haftarat Tazria—2 Kings: A Religious Conversion

April 6, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,
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.

 

Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.