Ari Sacher

“Generals and Prophets” Parashat Tazria 5784

The Portion of Tazria pertains primarily to the laws of tzara’at, a skin disease commonly – but incorrectly[1] – associated with leprosy. Tzara’at is not a physical malaise, rather, it is a physical response to a deeper spiritual ailment. The Talmud in Tractate Arachin [16a] enumerates an array of sins that can cause tzara’at: “Lesions of tzara’at come and afflict a person for seven sinful matters: For malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, for forbidden sexual relations, for arrogance, for theft, and for stinginess.” While the Portion of Tazria describes the somewhat dull mechanics of tzara’at – its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment – the haftorah is much more, well, interesting. It tells a story of generals, prophets, and, of course, tzara’at. In this essay we will analyse the haftorah and try to scrape beneath the surface to see what is really going on.

The haftorah of the Portion of Tazria is taken from the fifth chapter of Kings II[2]. It tells the story of Naaman, the Commander of the Army of Aram, a global superpower located in southern modern-day Syria, that, over the years, caused the Jewish People an immense amount of strife. Naaman is an impressive person [King II 5:1]: “A prominent man before his lord and respected, for through him G-d had given victory to Aram”. Naaman also suffered from tzara’at. Scripture refers to him as a “Gibor chayil metzora”, literally a “Warrior afflicted with tzara’at”, meaning that he had likely suffered from tzara’at for most of his military career and probably even longer. Naaman hears from a Jewish slave girl captured in battle that the prophet Elisha, who lives in Samaria, can cure his tzara’at. Naaman sends a request to the King of Israel, who forwards it to Elisha. Elisha accepts the challenge and tells Naaman to come and see him so that he should learn [Kings II 5:8] “that there is a prophet in Israel”. Naaman makes the trip and shows up at Elisha’s front door in full military dress. Elisha tells him to go immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times and his tzara’at will be cured. Naaman is incensed [Kings II 5:11-12]: “Here I thought that he would come out to see me, and he would stand and call in the name of his G-d, and he would raise his hand toward the lesion and cure the tzara’at”. Are not Amanah and Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” I thought he was going to use magic, not the homeopathic stuff. Have you even seen the Jordan River? Compared to some of the rivers I’ve bathed in, the Jordan River is barely a trickle. Naaman storms away in a huff. But before he can get back on his horse to return home, his servants convince him to give it a try. Naaman goes down to the Jordan and immerses himself in it seven times, and to his surprise, it works [Kings II 5:14]: “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young lad, and he became clean.” Naaman returns to Elisha and tells him that he is a new man [Kings II 5:15-17]: “Behold, now I know that there is no G-d in all the earth except in Israel… Your servant will no longer offer up a burnt-offering or a sacrifice to other deities, but to G-d.” Nevertheless, to paraphrase Peter Falk’s Detective Columbo, “There’s just one more thing”. Naaman informs Elisha that he has a small problem [Kings II 5:18]: “For this thing may G-d forgive your servant; when my master comes to Beth-Rimmon to prostrate himself there [to an idol], and he leans on my hand, I [too] will bow… may G-d forgive your servant for this thing.” While I am now a self-proclaimed monotheist, my master, the King, is not. When he engages in idolatrous acts, I kind of have to make it look like I’m doing the same thing. That’s OK, right?  Elisha tells him [Kings II 5:19] “Go in peace”. While most of the commentators view the exchange in a benign way – after all, Naaman wanted to retain his position as Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he was not really engaging in any idolatry – Rabbi Baruch Sorotzkin[3], writing in “HaBina veha’Bracha” sees things in a much more sinister light. He asserts that if Naaman was truly serious about his epiphany and his new commitment to G-d, then he shouldn’t have been engaging in idolatry in any way, shape, or form. For this reason, concludes Rabbi Sorotzkin, Elisha answers Naaman in a noncommittal and even a dismissive fashion: “Go in peace”. You can go your own way… I suggest that if we revisit the story of Naaman and Elisha with Rabbi Sorotzkin’s explanation in mind, we can gain some critical insight into tzara’at and its root causes.

My Rabbi and my teacher, Rabbi Silberman, speaking on Shabbat HaGadol 5760, noted that the key to the redemption of the Jewish People from Egypt was the fact that while they were “enslaved”, they were not “slaves”. Their identity as a “free people” had been sullied by years of bondage, but given the right environment, they could flourish. Pharaoh disagreed. He believed that the Jews, as “slaves”, were beyond redemption. Rabbi Silberman leveraged this distinction to explain why Moshe performed specifically the “magical snake trick” for Pharaoh. Scripture describes Naaman as as a “gibor chayil metzora”, translated above as “a warrior afflicted with tzara’at”, where the word “metzora” is a descriptor of a person who has contracted tzara’at. This translation is imprecise. The word “metzora”, like the word “slave”, is a noun. Naaman’s tzara’at was an integral part of his identity and I propose it was a direct consequence of his arrogance. According to Merriam-Webster, “Arrogance” means “Disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance”. Naaman had a certain kind of arrogance: the inability to accept the existence of a greater power and the unwillingness to accept fealty to it. Scripture alludes to this when it introduces Naaman as the consummate General, noting that “through him G-d had given victory to Aram”. Naaman’s success was G-d’s success, and he would forever remain a metzora until he could acknowledge that.

Had Elisha healed Naaman’s tzara’at magically, “to raise his hand toward the lesion and cure it”, it would have left Naaman with his arrogance. Instead, Elisha endeavours to treat the root cause of Naaman’s tzara’at. The Malbim[4] explains that Elisha specifies that Naaman should physically come to see him instead of going out to meet him at the Jordan River so that Naaman should become acutely aware “that there is a prophet in Israel” – that G-d alone is responsible for man’s success and his failures and that the Prophet Elisha, his earthly representative, is the only person on earth who can cure you. This why Naaman must [Kings II 5:14] “go down to the Jordan River”. The Hida[5], writing in “Nachal Sorek”, explains that Naaman did not have to “go down” to the Jordan because the river lies in a valley (which it does), but, rather, he needed to “lower himself in his own eyes”, because an arrogant person cannot rid himself of tzara’at. Naaman seems to understand Elisha’s message. When he returns to Elisha from the river, he does so not [Kings II 5:9] “together with his horses and chariots” but all by himself. But when he backtracks and informs Elisha that he will still be bowing down to idols because it furthers his career, Elisha realizes that Naaman has not changed. His tzara’at might have disappeared but he remained a metzora.

A comment by Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman of the Washington Heights Congregation can help fold the message of the haftorah back into the Torah reading. The mechanics of tzara’at all revolve around the Priest (Kohen). A Kohen, and only a Kohen, determines whether a person’s symptoms are indicative of tzara’at, a Kohen declares the person “impure”, a Kohen determines whether he has been cured, and a Kohen performs a procedure that purifies him. Rabbi Hoffman notes, “The requirement that we defer to an authority figure serves to break this person’s habit of strongly giving precedence to his or her own thoughts and opinions, without sufficient pause and humility.” Sometimes, some good old-fashioned humility can be more powerful than even the greatest magic.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] See this article:

[2] The haftorah actually begins with the last three verses of the fourth chapter, verses that ostensibly have little to do with the rest of the haftorah. Why they are included in the haftorah is a topic for another essay.

[3] Rabbi Sorotzkin lived in Belarus and the U.S. in the previous century. He was the Dean of the Telz Yeshiva.

[4] Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known by his acronym “Malbim”, lived in Poland in the 19th century.

[5] Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai, known by his acronym “Hida,” lived in the 18th century in Israel and Italy. “Nachal Sorek” is the Hida’s commentary on the weekly haftorah.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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