“Who’s the Boss?”
Sadly, the haftarah for Parshat Tazriya is usually left unread; either it’s a double parsha and Metzora’s is read, or one of the four special parshiyotcoincide with shabbat Tazriya and its haftarah is read instead, or, sometimes it’s Rosh Chodesh. Thankfully, this year, we are reading the ‘appropriate’ haftarah giving a chance to fully appreciate Chazal’sintended message through it. Therefore, in the spirit of equal opportunitydivrei Torah, I would like to spend some time on this oft-forgotten reading.
The section read is taken from Melakhim II, where Na’aman, the heroic general of the armies of Aram, is stricken with tzara’at and he requests from Elisha, the prophet of the God of the Jews, to cure him. At first highly insulted by Elisha’s instructions to dip seven times in the ‘lowly’ Jordan River, he finally acquiesces and is immediately healed. His attempt to bestow gifts of gratitude upon Elisha fails whereupon he instead ‘settles’ for pledging his service only to God instead of assisting the King of Aram in his idolatrous worship.
On the surface this sounds like a fabulously inspiring story of a non-Jew recognizing the might of God through a miraculous healing and his subsequent dedication of faith only to Him. However, why would is it chosen for the haftarah for Tazriya? If we answer that it’s the tzara’atconnection, then surely this story needs to teach us more about that affliction than merely casting it in the role of ‘Supporting Malady’!
Before we take a closer look at the text, we must first understand the symbolic meaning behind the Divine ‘affliction’ of tzara’at. To understand the affliction of tzara’at, the ideal would be for God to have explained it to us. Well, He didn’t. So, the next best method would be to look at all the times it occurs in the Torah and compare the circumstances, people involved, etc.; well, it only happens once, with Miriam’s criticism of Moshe at the end of Parshat Be’ha’alotkha. So what method is left to us? In this week’s two parshiyot, the types of tzara’at are enumerated, along with their punishment and purification processes. We know that God’s punishments are always perfectly reflective of the crime, so if we understand the ramifications to the punishment and the method of purification, they will serve as an ample source for our understanding of the reason behind this enigmatic affliction.
To begin, there are only three ‘places’ where tzara’at can occur: on people (skin), their clothing or their houses. Also, when someone is officially determined a metzorah, he must: let his hair grow, allow his clothing to become ragged and tattered, pull his ‘hood’ down over his face, publicly proclaim, ‘I am impure, I am impure’ and reside, alone, outside the public camp for at least seven days. Then, when he is officially rid of his affliction, he must shave off all his hair, immerse himself and his clothing, bring a collection of korbanot and have the oil and blood of these korbanot sprinkled upon him. Then he is permitted to return to the camp but not to his house, for he must reside another seven days outside of his personal abode and only a week after his official return may he finally enter his house. These are all the facts we have from the text.
If we look at the list of possible affected areas, we can immediately discern a common theme: all these locales are used as societal definers. How you look, how you dress, what kind of house you own – the ‘better’ these characteristics, the ‘higher’ you are in society. So, our picture is now a bit sharper; this punishment’s affliction is societal specific. Then, when a person is declared a true metzorah, he must let his hair grow wild, let his clothing become tattered, he must cover his face, publicly proclaim to his neighbors that he is impure and, most blatant of all, he must leave society and live alone! So, the punishment’s repercussions, too, are directly connected to society; the process totally removes the afflicted from his societal status. When he finally wants to reenter society, he must first shave off his hair, immerse himself and his clothing(‘immersion’ is the Torah’s metaphorical symbol of rebirth), but nonetheless only returns to the general society, for he must still remain outside his own, personal house. After seven days, seven days of being ‘right there’ but just not all the way in, he may totally reenter society.
To review: the social status symbols are directly afflicted; the punishment demands a total disregarding of every aspect of societal standing; a return requires removal and subsequent recreation of social standing and seven days of enforced introspection before returning fully to society. What we can now assume, therefore, is that the punishment of tzara’at was for one who corrupted socially so that God reciprocates perfectly with an enforced corruption of the transgressor’s society. It is not coincidental, therefore, that the Midrash attributes the transgression of Lashon Harahas the cause of this affliction – Lashon Harah concerns the corrupting of the preexisting social system by introducing facts and information that directly lead to the damaging of another’s social standing. And, to return to our last proof-source, Miriam; if you read the episode carefully, you will see that even when Moshe’s prayer to restore her health is accepted, God still requires her to remain outside of the camp for seven days! For if one receives tzara’at for a social crime (she criticized the leader of the nation, seeking to lower his status (which is why God immediately responds with ‘Moshe is the greatest of all, we speak face to face’ i.e. he’s the ‘highest’)), although the actual affliction may heal, the lesson still must be learned – so she had to remain alone, to introspect, even though the prayer for the physical affliction was received.
If we now return to our haftarah and take a closer look at the words of this story in the context of tzara’at, a greater theme becomes apparent which does lend a deeper understanding of the Divinely meted out affliction of tzara’at.
The story opens with the formal introduction of the main character:
“And Na’aman, the general of King Aram, was [considered] a great man before his masters and was glorified because it was with him that God gave salvation to Aram; and the man was a great warrior, stricken with tzara’at”
Then, a ‘small young girl’ who Na’aman takes captive during his battles with Bnei Yisrael, tells ‘her mistress’ that Elisha can cure the general; the mistress in turn relays the message of the ‘girl from the Land of Israel’ toNa’aman. In the first four verses of this section (and hence the tone-setting for the rest of the story) we are given a tremendously dramatic contrast between the exaggeratedly lofty and honored tzara’at afflicted general and his meek salvation from this condition: a small, young captive girl from the lowly nation of Israel.
When Na’aman arrives at Elisha’s house with foot soldiers and chariots in tow, he ‘stands at the doorway’, awaiting his deserved greeting from the prophet of Israel; instead, only Elisha’s messenger emerges, notifying him of the necessary path to health. The ‘honored’ general is outraged, saying,
“Behold I said to myself that he would come out and call out in the name of God, wave his hand over the infected area and cure it! Aren’t the [great rivers] of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel – shouldn’t I just bathe in them!”
And as he storms off, his servant convinces him to follow the prophet’s instructions, and upon dipping into the Jordan, ‘his skin returned, like the skin of a small child’. Once again, the scene’s action is painted through the deep colors of dramatic contrast: Na’aman feels his honor slighted when he is ignored by the prophet and is told by a mere messenger that the lowly waters of Israel are greater than his mighty nation’s rivers; however, it is a servant who convinces him to heed the advice and the immediate result is the return of the skin like that of a small child (the words used are the exact masculine parallel of the captive girl who gave the advice to the great soldier originally!).
Na’aman then returns to Elisha, now ‘standing before him’ (vs. standing outside waiting for the prophet to greet him) beseeching Elisha to “please take a gift from your servant” – a request which is adamantly refused. The great general is now the servant and the one who has the opportunity to impose his power over this humbled warrior flatly refuses, therein retaining the newly established equality of status.
Through the close reading of the text, it is very clear that the highlighting of the themes of enforced humility and the weakness of social superiority is the central purpose of this story. Elisha didn’t even answerNa’aman’s offer to serve God instead of the idols in response to the miraculous cure, he just told him to ‘journey in peace’! – therefore the ‘God-message’ is specifically not the focus of this section; rather, every scene in this episode is there to highlight the power of the supposed ‘lowly’, and the ineptitude of the theoretically ‘strong’ – and this is the message of the punishment of tzara’at. It is the ultimate equalizer, affecting the class-defining clothing, house or body of the ‘socially superior’, relegating him to the outskirts of the camp in tattered rags and unkempt hair, awaiting his acceptance back into the society he had previously supposedly ‘ruled’. There is only one true governing ‘body’ over the people and the world, and the sooner the denier of this Divine hierarchy accepts this truth, the sooner he can return to his God-granted life.
Rav Jonathan Bailey