Wednesday, 18 Apr 2012

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
D’var Torah: Tazri’a-Metsora “Four at the Gate”

It’s not obvious which is more of a challenge for those in synagogues that read the entire weekly parashah: to hear Tazria and Metzora on two successive weeks, or—as this year—to have them together in one marathon session. First, the excruciating details of skin disease, then the rules and rituals for restoring the leper to a position back in the community, the enigmatic phenomenon of a leprous growth spreading on the walls of the house, and finally the ritual defilement following from discharge from the male or female sexual organs. The verses may be fascinating to some dermatologists, urologists and gynaecologists, but for many of us, they are not exactly the most engaging chapters of the Torah.

I will therefore focus my comments on the traditional Haftarah for parashat Metzora, which I do indeed find to be intriguing from a literary, historical, and moral point of view. Let’s begin with the verses that come before the Haftarah. The context is the career of the prophet Elisha, who—like his mentor, Elijah—sometimes got into serious trouble with the political rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel. At this time (the middle of the 8th century BCE), the king of Israel was Jehoram, son of Elijah’s king, Ahab. Ben-Hadad of the neighbouring kingdom of Aram had mustered his army and besieged the capital city of Samaria. The biblical description of the famine resulting from the siege is presented starkly. First it is in economic terms that we would need to translate into different categories to be very meaningful for us, though the impact is clear: “a quarter of a kab of doves’ dung sold for five shekels” (2 Kings 6:25).

Then the famine is dramatized in human terms that compete with the most macabre and horrifying scenes of Greek tragedy. A woman of Samaria encounters King Jehoram and asks for his help. Here we must read the translation of the text, because no paraphrase can do justice to the understated restraint of the biblical narrative style that expresses what must certainly be one of the most appalling passages in the Bible. The Samarian woman says:

That woman said to me, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him today; tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and we ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so that we can eat him.’ But she hid her son’ (2 Kings 6:28–29).

The woman therefore asks King Jehoram for justice.

Perhaps Solomon might have been up to rendering a decision in this case, which strikes me as far more anguishing than the one he encountered. But King Jehoram does not even try. The narrative continues, “When the king heard what the woman said, he tore his clothes [as a gesture of mourning], and as he walked along the wall, the people could see that he was wearing sackcloth [the dress of the mourner] underneath” (2 Kings 6:30).

Perhaps this episode could be analysed as an exercise in legal and moral reasoning. I cite it simply to provide the background for the Haftarah, which begins at this point of excruciating famine within the walls of the city—a famine that none of us can even begin to imagine but is similar to what is occurring in more than a few places in the world today—by changing the focus to four men suffering from leprosy encamped petah ha-sha’ar, at the entrance to the gate of the city wall. Presumably they have been placed just outside the wall either because of the Torah laws about ritual impurity. Or perhaps simply because of a fear of contagion.

They are temporarily safe because the besieging soldiers cannot get close enough to harm them without exposing themselves to the arrows of the sentries on the walls. Their reasoning is quite pragmatic: There is no point trying to get permission to re-enter the city, because there is no food to eat there. Yet if we remain where we are, we will die as well. The only chance for survival is to try to gain access to the camp of the Arameans, where at least there is some food.

When they approach the camp of the besiegers, they find to their astonishment that no one is there. In one of those enigmatic episodes for which the biblical author has no explanation and therefore attributes it to God’s intervention, the Arameans had abandoned the siege and returned rather hurriedly to their own territory. Yet the Israelites in Samaria, suffering the ravages of famine, did not know this; their MI5 and CIA were responsible for a potentially disastrous failure to provide this crucial information, and they apparently believed that there were still weapons of mass destruction outside the gate.

In the enemy camp, the lepers find not only plenty to eat, but also silver and gold and clothing. This they take and bury, as all sensible people in their situation would have done. But then the lepers have another decision to make. They could simply have taken the food they could carry and made their way to another destination, leaving the people in the city that had abandoned them to their own fate. Instead, they decide that this would not be right. To remain silent, to conceal the good news from the starving people, would be a sin. And so they return to the gate to inform the guards. The king is wary that it may be a trick to gain access to the city—he may have read Homer’s Iliad about the Greeks only pretending to leave the siege of Troy. But his reconnaissance units confirm that the enemy has indeed withdrawn, and is nowhere to be found. Food is once more plentiful, the prices of flour and barley plummet and become affordable once again.

And that is the last we hear of the four lepers. No indication that anyone said, “Thank you for saving our lives.” No indication that anyone even allowed them back within the city walls. The biblical author has no interest in whether they were ever able to dig up the gold and silver and create a new life for themselves in Mesopotamia or in South America. They simply vanish from the narrative.

But the narrative has some compelling applications. The terms “liminality” and “marginality” are standard fixtures of contemporary academic discourse in psychology, sociology, literature, religion. I know of no better exemplification of these terms—being situated in a crucial position, on the threshold of something new but not quite capable of attaining it, being consigned to the periphery of an entity that is too important to abandon but will not permit proper participation—than these four lepers at the gate of the besieged city. They obviously feel connected with their native society despite its mistreatment of them. Their access to the camp of the Other is what enables them to save their own people. Yet once their contribution has been made, they are forgotten, no longer on the agenda, a footnote of history.     

This image of the lepers in the gateway outside the walls is not a bad representation for some aspects of Jewish historical experience. As the medieval historian R.I. Moore has argued in his book, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250, Jews, lepers, and heretics were all subjected to dramatically intensified segregation, humiliation, and persecution in the High Middle Ages. Indeed, Moore writes that “For all imaginative purposes, heretics, Jews and lepers were interchangeable. They had the same qualities, from the same source, and they presented the same threat: through them the Devil was at work to subvert the Christian order and bring the world to chaos” (p. 65).

But the link between the historical Jewish experience and the lepers at the gates in the Haftarah is not entirely negative. Never fully accepted into the medieval societies, our ancestors were kept on the threshold, no matter how deeply the Spanish Jews identified themselves with Iberia, or the Persian Jews with Iran. Their contributions to the economies and to the cultures of the countries in which they lived were accepted, but these contributions rarely changed their fundamental status, and in times of increasing fanaticism, paranoia, and intolerance, the Jewish contributions were quickly forgotten.

Yet it was precisely this marginality—being part of an environment yet not fully part, having roots in a society yet also roots elsewhere, sharing in the ethos and values of a culture, yet retaining loyalty to a different, competing set of values—that has enriched both Jewish life and the lives of the nations where Jews have lived.

In this spirit, let us remember the first four words of the Haftarah for Metzora: arba’ah anashim hayu metsora’im—not “four lepers”, totally defined by their disease, but “four human beings who were lepers”—and the contribution they once made to the history of Israel by being on the threshold, and exploring the camp of the Other. It was a contribution probably soon forgotten in its original context, but eternalized in its selection for this Haftarah.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
April 2012

(MS is currently Weinstock Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard for spring semester 2012).


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