Thursday, 11 Apr 2024

Written by Dr Hannah M. Altorf, LBC rabbinical student

This week I found myself wondering, how did Naaman’s servants speak to him? Did they speak with love and care, or out of anger, despair, or even exasperation?

Naaman, we are told, was a great man, ‘commander of the army of the king of Aram’ and victorious in battle. (2 Kings 5: 1) Yet, he was also m’tzorah, afflicted with disease. On the advice of a female captive from the land of Israel, he sets out to visit Elisha to be cured. Yet, when Naaman arrives, he finds that Elisha will not speak to him directly, but instead tells him through a messenger: ‘Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored.’ (2 Kings 5: 10)

Naaman is outraged. Why did Elisha not come and speak to him? Why should the great Naaman plunge into a muddy little river, when he could have bathed in the splendour of the rivers in Damascus? In anger he storms off. And then the servants speak. Would their master not have followed any difficult or great assignment? They use the Hebrew gadol, great, thus reflecting the greatness of Naaman and so persuading him to do the simple task. Why not follow this simple instruction to bathe? So Naaman goes and he bathes and he is cured. (2 Kings 5: 11-14)

Namaan’s disease is the obvious connection between this week’s haftarah and the parashah. A considerable part of the parashah concerns itself with the same disease, tzaraat. It is not certain what is meant by this term. Traditionally it was understood to be leprosy. More recent translations speak of some kind of skin disease. To complicate our understanding even more, the disease does not just affect human skin, but also clothing and houses. There is no disease known now, which does all that. It is questionable there ever was.

A second, less obvious connection between the parashah and the haftarah is that neither connects the disease to moral failings. There is no moral judgment on the sufferer. It is not assumed that he or she committed a sin for which the disease is the punishment. In this respect, these episodes differ from, for instance, the time that Miriam is afflicted with the same disease. When Miriam’s skin turns white as snow, Aaron immediately connects her illness to what they both have done, to their sin. (Numbers 12: 10-15)

The cure of Naaman follows upon of a series of wonders. Before healing the great man, Elisha has made sure that a widow has enough oil, that a wealthy woman in Shunem has a son, who dies but is then brought back from death by Elisha. He next ensures that the acolyte prophets are not poisoned and finally that twenty loaves can feed a hundred people. At no one point does Elisha want a reward.

The text in Leviticus, in contrast, seems of a more practical nature. It describes how a priest would diagnose the disease and suggest the cure. The aim is, as the commentary in Etz Hayim Chumash argues, to make sure that the person could return to society as soon as possible. To that purpose the ill are visited by the most prominent of their community, the priests.

What is more, this parashah still resonates, as it were, with Aaron’s deep silence, with his response to the death of two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, by divine fire in last week’s parashah. Blu Greenberg speaks in her commentary to Sh’mini of ‘a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence.’ And, she adds, ‘[Aaron] does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.’ There is no attempt to to blame his sons or to argue that they brought their death upon themselves. There is also no Elisha which makes the impossible happen. There is only the silence of Aaron. Greenberg continues: ‘Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.’ (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 633)

The mystery of tzaraat may not be its nature, but our response to affliction. What do we do with a disease that isolates, the weakest even more so than the greatest? Its undefined nature allows for comparison to the present. A quick google search will show that in the past years, there have been convincing comparisons between tzaraat and Covid-19. Aaron’s silence reminds us that there still tragedies without justification, and that the argument that people brought these upon themselves should be avoided as they only increase the pain.

A few weeks ago, it was four years since the beginning of the first lockdown. At Leo Baeck College, we are reminded of that lockdown by the annual return of interview week. My interview week, four years ago, was cut short by the announcement of the forthcoming lockdown. Each year, interview week makes me reflect on the years that have passed since. This year, I realised that interview week was my only reminder. There was hardly any mention in the media or wider culture, even though the consequences of Covid-19 and the measures taken are still very much with us.

I wonder if the time has come to start thinking of our response to whatever afflicts people now, be that the aftermath of Covid-19 or something else. Or is it too soon? Is this a time for the great and prominent people in our society to go out, not so much to diagnose perhaps, but rather to try and ensure that those at the outskirts can be part of community again? The real miracle of the haftarah story is perhaps not just that Naaman was cured, but that he listened, first to a female captive and then to his servants. The miracle is that the servants were heard. The miracle is to find what gives live, what brings people together and back into community.

Dr Hannah M. Altorf, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.