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Naaman’s Leprosy

Shabbat Tazria

Haftarah  1 Kings 4:42-5:19

The Torah this week goes into detail about what is called Leprosy but should be understood to mean any infectious skin disease. The Priests were the equivalent of the medical class, and their role was to cure, combining the physical and spiritual.

The Haftarah on the other hand, deals with an event that took place in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Yehoram the pagan son of Ahab, when the prophet Elisha was the spiritual authority in Samaria. The two did not get on well. Roughly 2,800 years ago. It concerns a real case of a leper.

At that time Aram, Syria, was the dominant power and its general was called Naaman. He was a leper. Which did not seem to have stopped him from being a successful military man. Aram regularly invaded Israel and took captives into slavery.

One such captive was an Israeli girl who served Naaman’s wife and told her mistress about this great man in Israel who could cure Lepers. The general approached the King of Aram who sent Naaman with a letter to the Israelite King commanding him to cure Naaman. When the letter arrived, the Israel King panicked, thinking that this was an excuse to invade.

When Elisha, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes in despair, he sent a message to the king: “Why have you rent your clothes? Let him come to me, and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots to Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be pure.”

But Naaman was angry. He said “I thought he would surely come out to me, and would stand and invoke his God by name, and would wave his hand toward the spot, and cure me. Are not the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? I could bathe in them and be pure!” And he stalked off in a rage. But his servants came forward and spoke to him. “Sir,” they said, “if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, ‘Bathe and be pure.’” So, he went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, as the agent of God had bidden; and his flesh became like a little boy’s. And he was cured.

Returning to Elisha he said, “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel! So please accept a gift from your servant.” And Naaman said, “Then at least let your servant be given two mule-loads of earth; for your servant will never again offer up burnt offering or sacrifice to any god, except GOD. But may GOD pardon your servant but when my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow low in worship there, and he is leaning on my arm,  I too must bow low in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow low in the temple of Rimmon, may GOD pardon your servant in this for I will be bowing down to the god of the earth, not Rimmon.”

The main point of the story is that Elisha cured Naaman not through magic but rather through faith. As Naaman said he expected Elisha to perform some magic. But just dipping in the water seemed pointless. The river Jordan was not as impressive as the large rivers that passed through Syria. What Elisha was doing was stressing the importance of faith and will in matters of health. Naaman was expecting some hocus pocus and spells. Elisha wanted to distinguish between magic and faith.

The upshot was that Naaman was not only cured but was persuaded that Elisha’s approach was more valid than the one he was used to. But still he was loyal to a pagan king and had to join him in his rituals. At the same time, he wanted to identify with the Israelite God. That was why he wanted to take some earth back with him.

You might also see this as a metaphor for how we, who live in pagan societies, can remain loyal to our religious life. The postscript of this story is that Elisha’s servant Geyhazi betrayed his master’s values. Elishahad refused any gifts of gratitude ( unlike too many rabbis nowadays) but Geyhazi had run after Neeman telling him that Elisha had changed his mind and asked for gifts after all. When Geyhazi only wanted them for himself. When Elisha found out about his betrayal, Geyhazi was punished by being stricken with leprosy. Poetic justice.

Israel was idolatrous too. There were good and bad ones then as now. Those who abided by our values and those who betrayed them.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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