At a meeting the other day, a rabbi was speaking about dealing with the issues that are raised in parashat Tazria, and ultimately ended with the thought that, given that this year it was also Shabbat HaHodesh, that the simplest solution was to simply to avoid Tazria and focus on the readings for Shabbat HaHodesh. All present laughed, of course. Still, is that really the best approach?
I've not shied away from discussing Tazria or Metzora before, and I commend to you earlier musings I have written about them. Since I'm not going to be discussing Tazria today, I thought that bit of apologia appropriate. However, I'm not turning to Shabbat HaHodesh either. Instead, I am turning to the Haftarah for Tazria, from II Kings 4:42-5:19.
Interestingly enough, it begins with a story of a miraculous feeding of many on just a few loaves of bread which miraculously turned out to be more than enough to feed everyone. A story clearly rooted in Jewish tradition, though we often avoid referring to it since a similar story appears in the Xtian scriptures in connection with that carpenter from Nazareth.
The remainder of the haftarah relates the story of an Aramean (Syrian) military leader, Naaman, who is healed of a skin affliction by Elisha, a disciple of Eliyahu. In the tale, a young Israelite woman is captured in an Aramean raid, and she subsequently becomes a servant to the wife of Naaman. (Echoes of the Joseph story?) The Israelite tells Naaman's wife that he could go to the prophet who lives in Samaria and be cured of his skin affliction. Naaman learns of this and goes to his boss, the King of Aram (who values Naaman highly since he has been a victorious general. So the Aramean king send Naaman off with lots of silver and gold, and a letter of introduction, to see the King of Israel. The King of Israel was a bit suspicious of the King of Aram's motives, and wondered how he was expected to cure this man, as he could not take the place of Gd. However, Elisha learns of this and tells the King of Israel to send Naaman to him and he will deal with him. Elisha told Naaman to go bath 7 times in the Jordan and he will be healed. Well, Naaman was expecting a bit more hocus pocus and direct intervention by Gd through this prophet, so he stomped off muttering that he could just as easily wash in the rivers back home in Damascus!
At this point, Naaman servants make an important suggestion. They say to him, "had the prophet asked you to do something great (I.e. elaborate as the JPS translates "davar gadol") you would have done it, right? So why not just do this thing-wash and be clean. " In other words, "what's the harm in trying?" So Naaman does as Elisha has spoken, and bathes 7 times in the Jordan, and his affliction is healed.
If there's not an important lesson to be learned here, I'll eat my kippah. We are so often resistant to the suggestions of others as to how to fix what ails or troubles us (or suggestions on how to decide about that we simply are indecisive about.) As Naaman's servants suggest, "what's the harm?" Now, Naaman and his servants don't know Elisha from Adam, they have only the word of a captured servant to his wife. So they've no reason to trust Elisha any more than any other supposed prophet or man of Gd. So I discern several potential lessons from this. One, is to not always be resistant to trying the simple cure and insisting on an elaborate treatment. A more cautionary lesson might be for all of us to be careful when we refer others to people who might help them with what ails them. And, on the other hand, to perhaps learn to trust the sincerity of those who might make such suggestions to us as well.
The story doesn't end here. There is more to be learned. A potentially radical lesson.
Naaman offers gifts to Elisha, who declines them. The Naaman, impressed by the power of Elisha's Gd asks for earth from Israel that he can bring back to Syria where he will raise an altar to what he now knows is the only Gd that he will worship. (Naaman doesn't specifically say he doesn't believe there are other Gds--just that he will now only make sacrifices and offerings to Elisha's Gd, to Adomai--we're still in the throes of monolatry here.)
Then Naaman adds this interesting request. He seeks Gd's forgiveness, for when he goes back to Damascus, his King will force him to still bow down to the Syrian gd Rimmon.
In the verse (5:18) he repeats his request for Gd's forgiveness twice. The second time it appears as a simple Yislakh-forgive. The second time is it written Yislakh-Na. The particle "na" usually meaning "please" (as in El na r'fana lah.) However, the particle "na" has no vowels, and is therefore not vocalized when read. The rabbis teach us that this is so that no hint is given that Naaman was asking Elisha, rather than Gd, for this forgiveness. The "please" is seen as a sort of internal plea to Elisha to help him out with his request to Gd for forgiveness.
Elisha answers simply "leikh l'shalom" - go in peace.
This story of Naaman's "conversion" to Judaism was often held up by liberal Jews as proof text for using less demanding requirements for conversion. All it took, apparently, were Naaman's words.
In any case, there is nothing in the text to indicate any disapproval of either Naaman's dedication to Gd, nor of his request to be forgiven when the realities of his life and work require him to bow down before another gd. Thus we can assume Gd was OK with this request.
Yet today there are Jews who will not enter any house of worship but a synagogue (and some of them won't even go in certain synagogues.) Surely this story teaches us that Gd can and will forgive us if circumstances might compel us. (And is simply going into a church or mosque bowing down to another Gd? Is not the Gd of the Xtians and Muslims the same Gd we worship?
Under threat from the Inquisition, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews "converted" to Catholicism. Some secretly maintained their Jewish beliefs and practices. Some maintained the traditions for generations yet lost the connection and no longer understood why the went into a back room on Friday night and lit candles. Some in Ethiopia may have been easily swayed by Xtian missionaries . Yet even now Israel is agreeing to recognize the falash mura as Jews with a right of return.
Surely the story of Naaman teaches us that if Gd can forgive even Naaman's having to bow before another gd, then Gd will forgive lesser transgressions involving circumstances which may compel us to hide or simply enter a church to attend the simcha of a non-Jewish friend. Or understand that my work as a Jewish educator for my current congregation compels me each day to work in a building that houses a Presbyterian church as well.
(I was very troubled this week at the flimsy excuse of "we're too busy getting ready for Pesach" given by both of Israel's chief rabbis as to why they wouldn't attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. For be it from me to criticize such learned rabbis, but are they so busy preparing for Pesach that they forgot to study this week's haftarah?)
It's too bad the haftarah doesn't go just a bit further into chapter 5, for it ends with an interesting twist which contains another great lesson. Gehavi, a servant (man Friday? personal secretary?) to Elisha cannot believe his master has allowed Naaman to depart without so much as a token gift being left. So he pursues Naaman, lying to him that Elisha has sent him to ask for just a few small gifts, which Naaman willingly gives. He returns with the booty and leaves it in the household. But Elisha summons him and asks where he was. Gehazi lies but Elisha discloses he knows what Gehazi has done. Gehazi and his descendants are stricken with Naaman's affliction. Duh, Mr. Gehazi, Elisha is a prophet!
There's plenty of lessons to be derived from that story as well. I leave them to you to discern.
© 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on the same parasha:
Shemini 5764-Playing Before
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out
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