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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Parashat Tazria - Metzora - the Haftara

Tazria / Metzora - the Haftara
2Kings 7:3-20
Reading date: 25th April 2009 – 1st Iyyar 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text
Then [the four lepers] said to one another, "We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! If we wait until the light of morning, we shall incur guilt. Come let us go and inform the king's palace."
II Kings 7:9

Turning and thinking about others and speaking out can bring redemption.

The combined portions of Tazria-Metzora this week are probably the least favorite Torah portion of the year for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah: skin inflammations (zits), menstruation and night time emissions. But, fortunately, the haftara for both portions, connected by the issue of 'leprosy', tell interesting stories from the cycle of legends that revolve around the prophet Elisha. The portion for Tazria tells the story of Elisha miraculously curing Naaman of leprosy (2 Kings 4:42-5:19). When the portions are combined, as they are this year, we read the haftarah for Metzora (2 Kings 7:30).

The common, older translation of tzara'at and metzora as 'leprosy' and 'leper' is misleading. The description of the biblical disease does not correspond to true leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease). Scholars are not sure what medical condition would produce the white skin described in the Bible. Fox avoids the issue in his (normally excellent) translation by simply transliterating tzara'at instead of translating it, and awkwardly renders the latter metzora as 'one-with-tzara'at').

King Ben-Hadad of Aram, allied with the southern kingdom of Judah was waging a war against Israel. There was a famine in the land, and food was scarce. Food prices were out of control (a small quantity of carob pods- normally easily available and hardly a sought after food, sold for five shekels) and even cannibalism was reported. Samaria, the capital of Israel is under siege; but then inexplicably, the Aramean siege ends abruptly, and the Arameans are discovered to have deserted their army camp- leaving their animals, food, and gold behind. Elisha's prediction that food would be so plentiful, prices would drop to near normal levels comes true.
The haftara begins at verse 3 (after the prologue of Elisha’s prediction) with four lepers /outcasts' outside the gate of the city during Aram's siege of Samaria. Because they are 'outside the gates' and will starve to death if they stay there, they decide to take their chances with defecting to the Aramean camp. Initially, on discovering it deserted, they plunder it, eating and drinking and burying the gold and silver. But the lepers realize that what they are doing is not right, and they return to the city and inform the king. Their report is validated, and the city is saved.

There is one aspect to our story that is noteworthy. The many characters of our story: from king, courtier, soldiers, gatekeeper, are all nameless. Just as a name identifies an individual's character, the anonymity in our story highlights the characters' identity and role. Each character plays an archetype. Adele Reinhartz in her wonderful volume, "Why Ask My Name?" suggests that:Focus on role designations, in turn, allows us to construct identity in the locus between the role designation and the character's narrative portrayal. In doing so, we compare the stereotypical behaviors associated with the role in biblical narrative and the particular ways in which the unnamed character fulfills or does not fulfill the role, or we look at the degree to which he or she stretches its limits or calls its very contours into question.

The text wants us to focus on the identity of the four individuals as lepers. The bearers of good news, the four nameless 'lepers' were outcasts. Like our world today, individuals 'on the edge' of society are not valued. Yet it was these lowest four on the social ladder who were the instruments of their nation's salvation. It was precisely their location 'outside the gates' that enabled them to set into motion a chain of events that saved the city. But how did they do it? At first, they only worried about themselves. Then, they had a change of heart. As social outcasts they could have easily justified the looting to themselves as they felt abandoned by society. But they don't. They speak out instead.

Rabbi Rochelle Robins (in The Women's Haftara Commentary ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein) suggests that if the four 'lepers' are suffering from 'speaking out,' it is interesting then, that it is again by 'speaking out' that releases these individuals from their fate. Robins of course is basing this on the rabbinic play on words that see metzora as a contraction for motzi shem ra, speaking slander or gossip. Leprosy, turning one's skin white is interpreted by the Rabbis as Divine punishment for 'blackening' someone's reputation with words.

[The idea that we are punished for misdeeds is certainly often true on many levels; our actions, good and bad, have consequences. The problem is that the reverse is not necessarily true. If we smoke, we may get cancer; but not everyone who gets cancer, smoked. The notion that if we suffer, we must therefore have sinned, is extremely problematic. In the Bible, everything is from YHVH, so suffering is generally seen as punishment but I think that all though it is His purpose, we do not always understand.]

Robins points out that at times, 'speaking out' may have negative social consequences. But there are also times when we must have the courage to speak the truth and not be silent. It is this act of teshuva, this turning and thinking about others, and speaking out can bring redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

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