Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Haftarot)

TAZRI'A: A Cure - and a Curse

This week, as shall occur twice more during the course of the reading of Sefer Vayikra, a double Torah portion is read—Tazri’a and Metzora (Lev 12-16)—both of which deal with tzara’at (the skin disease commonly, and almost certainly miscorrectly, translated as leprosy) and various bodily discharges. The haftarot for the two portions, both of which are taken from Second Kings, deal with this affliction in one way or another: that for Tazri’a is concerned with it in a more substantive way, while that for Metzora, (which is the one read when, as this year, the two are doubled over) only refers to it in passing, in the opening verse. Albeit, the situation of the four leprous men outside of the city is more than that: it was a fortuitous accident that turns out to be central to the story, because this fact enabled them to observe things no one else saw, and brings about the overnight deliverance that stands in its center.

The haftarah for Tazri’a, 2 Kings 4:42-5:19, tells the story of Naaman, general of the Syrian army who suffered from leprosy. Syria, or Aram, had been a military opponent of Israel, so that he heard of the wonder-working Israelite prophet from a young girl they had taken captive during a military excursion. Initially the Syrian king sends a letter to the king of Israel asking him to cure Naaman of his leprosy; the message fills Yehoram with panic. But Elisha soon enough hears of the case, and asks the man to be sent to him.

Elisha‘s instruction, sent via a messenger, is very simple: Naaman is to bathe seven times in the waters of the Jordan, and he will be cured. (v. 10). The general is disappointed and angry: he had expected Elisha to recite an incantation, to perform some sort of magic, to wave his hand over him and the like. After all, his own country has deep and broad rivers, such as Amana and Pharpar, that are far more impressive than the Jordan. But his servants manage to calm him down, telling him that the prophet has told him a “great thing,” and convince him to reconsider; sure enough, no sooner does he bathe in the Jordan than his leprosy is cured, and his skin is as smooth as that of the proverbial baby.

Yairah Amit, in her book Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative, suggests that this story is intended as an anti-magical polemic: the cure is affected by the simple means of bathing in the water, rather than through any arcane, esoteric acts (pp. 64-66). The essential, idea is that God alone is master of the universe, and that He cures or withholds healing at His will; the simple act of bathing is sufficient means through which God may affect the cure.

(One may perhaps find an interesting counterpoint to this idea, in a much later age, in the final section of Maimonides’ “Laws of Purity,” where he states that the water of the mikveh does not affect purification through physical or magical-metaphysical means: “Tum’ah is not dirt or offal to be removed by water—but rather by the intention of the person to become purified."—Hilkhot Mikvaot 11:12)

But did Naaman internalize the message? The haftarah ends with him making the rather interesting statement that “Now I know that there is no God but in Israel” (v. 15) and that, consequently, from now on he wishes to offer sacrifices to the Lord. How does he do this? He takes a wagon-full of earth back home with him, with which he builds an altar—as if to say that God resides in a concrete, corporeal way in the soil of the Land of Israel.

Our haftarah ends with verse 19, with the phrase “And he went away a little distance” (kivrat aretz). The phrase suggests that something else is still going to happen—as indeed it does. The choice of this stopping point is puzzling. There are other cases in which the stories related in the haftarot are truncated in the middle: the haftarah for Hukkat (Judges 11:1-33), where the account of Jephthah’s military victory is told, while the gruesome incident involving his daughter is studiously avoided, comes readily to mind. Neither of these cases are among those mentioned in Mishnah Megillah 4.8 as “not to be read,” because of their unseemliness. I find this an interesting question, for which I have no clear answer.

What then happens in the passage (vv. 20-27) omitted by the Rabbis? Naaman had offered Elisha silver and other gifts which he had brought, but he refused them (vv. 15-16, and cf. 5). After he leaves, Gehazi runs after him, without asking permission of his master, telling Naaman a tall story about two young men who had just arrived, and how they needed money and two changes of clothing. Naaman generously gives him more than he asks; when Gehazi returns, he tries to pretend to Elisha that nothing happened (v 24 ff.), but Elisha knows: either he saw him, or he had clairvoyant powers. He tells him that he had no business taking money or other gifts, and curses both him and his future offspring with Naaman’s leprosy.

Gehazi misused his master’s prophetic charisma and ability to heal for his own personal benefit. He was not only a liar and a sneak, but he violated a central tenet of the prophetic ethic: that a man of God must not use his gifts for his own personal benefit; that he must be not only humble, but live an austere, unpretentious life. The lesson for our society is striking. Religion, especially in Israel, is plagued by commercialization. Everywhere one turns, it seems, one finds people reaping profit in the name of God—be it the dubious wonder-working Kabbalists who dispense blessings, the politician-rabbis who funnel off public funds into their own pockets, or the ever-so-suave and charming rabbis who accept generous fees for conducting high society weddings that, under law and public policy, are to be conducted for free.

METZORA: The Siege of Shomron

In order to properly understand the haftarah for Metzora, 2 Kings 7:[1-]3-20 (the Yemenites add 13:23, which assures Divine blessing to Israel even after Elisha’s death!), one needs to read the section that immediately precedes it, 6:24-33; 7:1-2. (Unlike the haftarah for Tazri’a, whose logical end I claim is truncated, here it is the beginning that is truncated.) Ben-Hadad, king of Syria, laid siege to Samaria, the strongly fortified capital city of Israel (i.e., the Northern kingdom), hoping to eventually starve its inhabitants into surrender. Even the most disgusting foodstuffs were sold at an exorbitant price (6:25). We read a pitiful account of the king walking along the city ramparts and encountering a woman crying for help, who tells him of a macabre deal she made with a neighbor, whereby they would share their babies for food on two successive days (vv. 26-29). The king, distraught, rents his clothes, and swears to kill Elisha, whom he blames for the situation. But Elisha prophesies that the tide shall soon turn: “at this time tomorrow one shall buy a measure of wheat, and two measures of barley, for one shekel in the gate of Samaria.” An officer of the king who had been sent to take him away scoffs in disbelief, “If God makes windows in heaven, can such a thing be?” Elisha responds, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but not eat.”

At this point our haftarah begins. The entire population of Samaria is inside the city, afraid to go out for fear of the Syrian armies, while slowly starving to death. The only people outside of the city gates are four lepers, who under biblical law (see this week’s portion: Lev 13:45-46) are banished from places of settlement. They too are starving, and one of them suggests raiding the adjacent Syrian encampment: “the worst they can do is kill us; if not, we’ll die of starvation anyway.” They sneak off in the dead of night and, to their great surprise, discover that the camp is completely deserted; only the animals—horses and donkeys—have been left at their hitching places. The narrator notes in an aside that God had made a great noise, as of a huge army, so as to alarm the Syrians and make them abandon their camp in a panic (vv. 6-7). After eating and drinking their fill, and stealing some gold and silver and hiding it away (7:8), the four lepers decide to convey the good news to the inhabitants of Samaria. Initially the king suspects a trick: the Syrians are trying to lure them out of the city so as to attack and steal whatever wealth remains in the city. But one of his advisors suggests that he send five horsemen to see what is happening (notice the role of humble servants, both here and in the previous haftarah, in giving the big-shots common sense advice). Sure enough, there are signs of a hasty retreat: clothes and stuff thrown about helter-skelter along the escape route going down to the Jordan (like the boots of the Egyptian soldiers which, according to Israeli folklore, were left in the Sinai desert during the Six Day War). Upon hearing this, the king and the people go out and pillage the Syrian camp, overnight the famine is broken, and abundant and cheap food is once more available.

The coup de grace: the prophet’s word is fulfilled to the letter: when the good news comes, the hapless officer who mocked Elisha’s words is trampled by the crowd rushing out to get food, so that he “sees with his eyes but does not eat.” Beyond it being a good story, what do we learn from this haftarah? Here, Elisha is very much the miracle worker—he is the only one privy to God’s salvational plan, so that he prophesies that which seems to everyone else to be impossible, illogical, and contrary to reason. But, unlike the magician, the source of his power and knowledge is his unmitigated contact with God, who works miracles—in this case, simulating the sound of a great army to scare off Israel’s enemies and save them from starvation. Is the intended “lesson,” then, simply one of abiding trust, of childlike, unconditional faith in God and in His prophets? It would seem so—but see below.

Another issue raised by this haftarah is the status of metzoraim. Are they ostracized, or merely quarantined? In the above haftarah, the lepers are really the heroes of the story; after all, it was they who discovered the fortuitous flight of the Syrian forces. Is there some sort of message here that, though they may be isolated and quarantined, they are not meant to be objects of moral condemnation? (But, on the other hand, note the stories involving the leprosy of Gehazi, of Miriam [in Numbers 12], etc., in which they were clearly morally culpable.) Or was the association of tzara’at and moral wrongdoing already present here? It might be interesting to compare the role of tzara’at with that of AIDS in contemporary society. The two diseases seem to have occupied roughly analogous social positions: highly contagious, much dreaded, and involving certain overtones, in the eyes of some, of moral turpitude, albeit not explicitly stated.

Where is the God of Elijah?”

This is perhaps the appropriate place to say a few words about the figure of Elisha in general—or, more properly, of the entire cycle of stories involving the figures of both Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-13). These two are perhaps the most famous teacher-disciple pair in the entire Bible, with the possible exception of Moses and Joshua. (In addition to the two haftarot of this week, Elijah and/or Elisha appear in the haftarot for Vayera, Ki Tisa, and Pinhas.) What are these stories all about?

We find here a miraculous atmosphere of almost childlike, naive, total faith in God and in His chosen prophet. Here, more than anywhere else in the Bible, we find that, as the Sages put it, “the righteous man decrees, and the Holy One blessed be He fulfills.” Time after time, whatever the prophet says is immediately carried out by God, whether it be such miracles as the simulation of the presence of a vast army so as to protect Israel (or himself! see 6:17); splitting the waters of the Jordan (2:8, 14-15); reviving the dead (even by means of contact with his bones after his own death: 13:21); or such a trivial thing as causing a borrowed ax handle that accidentally fell in the water to float (6:5-7).

The two of them seem to be surrounded by miraculous manifestations; on more than one occasion, Elisha produces an army of fiery creatures from heaven. When the time comes for Elijah to die, or rather “to be taken away,” he is carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot (see the entire story, 2 Kgs 2:1-18)—a scene whose like is repeated nowhere else in the Bible.

There is a certain note of harshness, of even ferocious anger, in the personalities of the two, particularly Elisha, that is directed mostly against the corrupt and sacrilegous rulers of their day and their lackeys. They serve as a militant opposition to the kings of their time, most notably Ahab, who openly flirt with paganism and defy the most elementary tenets of Israelite faith. (Binyamin Uffenheimer, in the lengthy section devoted to these figures in his Ancient Prophecy in Israel, refers to them as “the militant prophets”). Elisha’s curse is highly potent, and is directed, not only at, e.g., the army officers who support the kings turning to Baal-zebub (2 Kgs 1), but even against others, such as the royal officer in our haftarah, who is cursed simply for scoffing at the prophet’s words. In one bizarre story, Elisha curses a group of forty-two children who laugh at him and call him “baldy,” who are attacked by a pair of she-bears that emerges from the forest (2:23-24).

But alongside this harshness and capacity for anger against the powerful and arrogant, they also display tender concern and caring for ordinary people, whom they help out with their mundane problems (poverty, illness, or both) through the use of their miraculous powers (see 1 Kgs 17: 8-24; 2 Kgs 4:1-37; 8:1-6; etc.). It is on their behalf and in their name, too, that they challenge the misuse of royal privilege, as in the famous incident of the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kgs 21).

Two interesting aspects. 1. Elisha’s apprenticeship of Elijah. When the time comes for Elijah to depart this world, Elisha asks him to “give me pi shnaim [twice; or, some say, two-thirds] of your spirit.” He then inherits the mantle of Elijah, in the most literal sense. Indeed, in many ways Elisha was seen as a direct continuation of the persona of Elijah (“the spirit of Elijah has rested upon Elisha”; 2:5) 2. The aloneness of these prophets. “I alone am left as a prophet of the Lord,” declares Elijah (1 Kgs 18:22); and elsewhere he speaks of the small remnant of “those… who have not bent the knee to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed hi” (19:18).

What are we to make of this? The modern temperament is, to put it mildly, skeptical of miracle stories. We see in religion either a source of moral truth, a solid anchor for human ethics and idealism; or else, among contemporary neo-mystics, a source for experience of the cosmos. In either case, there is little room for tales about fiery chariots, floating axes, bears emerging from the forest in response to curses, etc. Interestingly, these stories seem to be the direct model for the New Testament miracle stories about John the Baptist and Jesus. I remember that in my childhood these naive, impossible sounding Gospel stories were seen as but one more example of the “irrational” and naive nature of Christian religion. However, I believe that trying to ignore or explain away these stories does injustice to a central motif in Judaism. We need to confront and understand this powerful religious phenomenon on its own terms.

One of the most theologically pregnant statements in this section, one that is often overlooked, is Elisha’s invocation of God, just after Elijah is taken heavenward, by the name “the Lord, God of Elijah” (2 Kgs 2:14). Ordinarily, the only people whose name is coupled with that of God, whether in the Bible or in Jewish prayer, are the patriarchs, be it individually or collectively: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”; “God of your/the fathers”; or the generic ”God of Israel.” In a mere handful of places, such expressions are also used in relation to David (1 Kgs 1:36; 2 Kgs 20:5; Isa 38:5; 2 Chr 21:12; and, liturgically, in the closing blessings of the haftarah). I take this to mean that in some way Elijah, through his mission and his life work, through his direct, living connection with the sources of Divine power, made God‘s name and reality known in the world.

The central belief expressed here is that a human being may be touched by God’s hand, in ways that ordinary souls cannot begin to comprehend. That there are people for whom the “iron wall” separating us from Our Father in Heaven, the impenetrable barrier between human reality and the Divine world, making all our faith no more than conjecture and speculation—that for such people this barrier is like a porous membrane, through which they slip back and forth at will. People like Rabbi Ishmael, ascending heavenward for a chat with “the man wearing linen garments”; or Honi the Circle Drawer and others mentioned in the aggadah of Ta’anit Chapter 1 (even if they are so ignorant that they don’t even understand a “simple” mishnah in Uktzin!), who merely have to say a single word, and God sends down torrents of blessed, long awaited rain. Or people like the Baal Shem Tov, who was able to look into the Sefer ha-Zohar and see all the secrets of the world; who might, perhaps, find some errant husband walking the streets of Prague or Vienna—and then, uttering a holy name, be there in a twinkling of an eye and fetch him back to his abandoned wife in Mezbizh or Snipatzuk.

Is all this to be seen as no more than an embarrassment? Cute stories with which to amuse small children? Or wishful fantasies of the human imagination run riot? Be that as it may, the world of this type of faith cannot be reduced to the tidy, rational, aesthetic categories of “ethical monotheism,” nor even to those of universal cosmic, unitive mysticism. Such a faith is also as distant from that of the pious Talmudist who studies Ketzot ha-Hoshen after his Friday night dinner, as it is to the confirmed agnostic, who only believes in what can be observed or proven empirically.

Be that as it may, we are told here that there is such a thing as charisma, of God granting people the powers to perform extraordinary acts, and that it is a sign of holiness. Who have the ability to do things that are otherwise in violation of the order of nature as we know it. Interestingly, in Ma’amar Tehiyat Hametim, arch rationalist Maimonides argues the theoretical possibility of God upsetting the laws of nature as an essential religious principle.

I do not advocate that everyone take the next bus to Netivot, or to the Bukharan Quarter, to seek out the putative heirs to Elijah and Elisha. Merely that we seriously ask ourselves, what kind of God would one need to believe in for these stories to be true?


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