Sunday, March 30, 2014

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers--God's Fortune-Wheel

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers

Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.
[1600-1 Shakespeare, Hamlet v. i. 286]


What’s harder to sermonize or write about than one Parsha/Torah Portion about Leprosy? Two Torah portions. And so, because this is a Leap Year in the Hebrew Calendar, the two portions which are normally linked together as Tazria-Metzora are separated, causing mental and sermonic anguish for rabbis the world over. Having said all we could about skin diseases in the past week, ChaZaL (a Talmudic acronym for Chachameinu Zichroneinu L’Vracha, or “Our Sages, May Their Memories Be for a Blessing, meaning the collective wisdom of all historical rabbis up to this point in Jewish history) took the word Metzora and used a Drash, or Homiletical Word-Play, to transform it to Motsee Shem Ra, or “To Bring Forth an Evil Name (on Someone),” that is, to Gossip. I may choose to speak on that topic, this Shabbat: please come and listen.
For now, I have chosen in this Writing, rather, to examine the Haftorah. The Soferim, or Scribes, who flourished around 168 BCE (the fortuitous time of the Chanukah Story—strange how these historical events tend to conflate with one another), were hard-pressed to preserve Jewish Education when the villain of those days (there’s always another villain), the Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes, forbade Torah Study, on pain of death. This made it nearly impossible to chant the weekly Torah Portion in public. Accordingly, therefore, the Scribes ordained (there were no rabbis as yet in those days, which is either a Good Thing or Bad, depending on how one feels about rabbis) that a reading from Prophets would replace the Torah Reading. When Antiochus was sent off packing by the Maccabees (he was to die later in battle against the Parthians), the Torah reading was renewed, but the Prophetic portions remained, to the eternal bliss or bane of thousands of b’nai mitzvah, to this day. The very word Haftorah does not mean “half-Torah”—it means “departure”—we are leaving the Torah, which is the Supreme Holy Object we possess—both holy relic and book, in one—and moving into the Prophets, which are holy, as well, but on a lower madreigah ruchanit, or level of holiness, than the Torah.
            All of which has little or nothing to do with the subject area of this week’s Haftorah, taken from II Kings 7:3-20, and involves an Aramean invasion of Samaria (today’s West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, depending, on your politics), under the Aramean king, Ben-Hadad. There is also a (nameless) king of Israel, who is deeply distressed over this military action. Elisha predicts that God will defeat the forces of Aram, but the king is dubious. He alternates between calling upon the Prophet Elisha for help, and seeking to behead him, which is puzzling.
            What is the connection between this Haftorah story and the subject of leprosy? The Haftorah begins by relating the tale of four lepers sitting just outside the gate of Samaria—they are not allowed in the city, due to fear of contagion, but neither are they driven away. The city is under siege, and several citizens have resorted to cannibalism, which is described in horrific detail. Bored and desperate for food, the lepers decide to visit the camp of Aram, figuring that if the enemy kills them, they were apt to die anyway from the disease, and if he feeds them, it’s a bonus.
            They come upon the enemy camp, and are amazed and delighted to find it totally deserted—it was not unusual for ancient Middle Eastern armies, at least, until the advent of Alexander the Macedonian Greek, with his military discipline—to panic and run off abruptly due to miscommunication, sudden alarm, foul weather, or defeat. Since they were often composed of mercenaries and assorted warriors who spoke a motley of different languages, cohesion was rare.
            Here is a curious display of Fortune’s Wheel: the lepers, having been at the bottom of the social order, suddenly find themselves rich and famous. Bringing their wonderful tidings, they come in triumph before the Israelite king, who initially suspects an ambush, and sends out two riders to carefully scour the camp. Upon their successful return, the relieved king allows his people to loot the Aramean booty and food. After the siege the city had suffered, there is rejoicing, with the only loser the king’s former personal officer, who had doubted Elisha’s prophecy that Israel would triumph; he is sentenced to lie down athwart the city gate, and dies from the joyful people’s stamping upon him in their haste to run and loot the Aramean camp.

            This story is certainly not the deepest one in the entire Tanakh/Hebrew Bible, but its little bit of drama, verisimilitude, and character buildup within the space of little over a chapter gives welcome relief in a sea of formulae relating to impurity, leprosy, animals and fowl specified for various offerings, as well as priestly duties. It reminds us that, when all is said and done, the Tanakh is a varied document, inspired by God certainly, but, in the end, containing as well, tales of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, with God behind the scenes.