The subject of this parsha/Torah portion, and of the one which follows, is leprosy. For all the three decades of my rabbinate, I have, year after year, racked my brain for new things to say about this gloomy subject, which, for our ancestors, might have meant a skin rash, blister, callous, or even the mold on a piece of cloth or the wall of a dwelling. This week, this year, I have decided to focus, not on the parsha, but the haftorah—not, properly speaking, the haftorah for this year’s Tazria; no. That will be a reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
Instead, I am turning to the regular haftorah for this Shabbat, whose hero is Elisha, seer and miracle worker, disciple of Elijah, but a cheerier sort of prophet. Apparently, he did prophecy-on-demand, as in this particular haftorah (II Kings 4:42-5:19), for no less a personage than Naaman, commanding general of the Aramean army. Naaman was “a great man…held in esteem…a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper” (II Kings 5:1). Did this great general have the dread Hansen’s Disease (as we call leprosy today), which would have permanently destroyed his ability to wield weapons? I doubt it; most likely, he had some lesser skin malady—psoriasis, or, more simply, a bad rash, in this age long before Cortisone was available.
On the advice of his Hebrew maidservant, Naaman goes to consult with Elisha, who has a reputation as a folk healer. The general makes a brave show with his entourage: he appears at the prophet’s humble door with an escort of horses and chariots, but Elisha is unimpressed. The prophet sends out a messenger to inform His Generalship that the remedy is to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times, which will cure his ailment.
Naaman is put off by this perfunctory reception: he expected more flash-and-dash from the man of God, assuming that he would utter God’s holiest name, and (at least) make hand-passes over Naaman’s afflicted skin—and, possibly, shoot off some flash paper, or at least pull a drachma out of Naaman’s ear.
Finally, his Aramean nationalistic pride makes him snobby: “Why should I not bathe in the waters of Syria, rather than some trickling Israelite stream?”
Luckily, Naaman’s officers are more attuned to Elisha’s modest miracle-working, and they urge him to take the Hebrew’s advice and bathe in the Jordan. He finally does so, and his skin is healed—instantly, of course. Naaman is, of course, astonished, and becomes an instant fan of the prophet—not enough to convert—he knows which side his Aramean bread is buttered on, and owes his high eminence to the Syrian King. When Elisha greets him, Naaman politely offers him a golden reward, which he refuses; nonetheless, the general is now convinced that the Israelite God is the only true ruler of the universe—at least, if any healing is to be done.
As they part, the now-convinced Aramean general asks the Hebrew prophet for a humble boon: to take home with him two mules’ burden of Israelite earth, in order to construct a suitable altar to the Israelite God near his home in Syria—without making a big fuss about it, of course; consider his position, as chief enforcer for his king. He explains to Elisha how his professional duties include accompanying his royal boss into the temple of the pagan god Rimmon (lit., “plenitude”) on ceremonial occasions, but that he will no longer worship that deity—except, perhaps, in public processions—all for political show, you understand (Some political requirements have not changed in several thousand years!)
“Go in peace,” replies Elisha, sending a message to all of us Jews who, during our daily activities, do not wear our faith on our sleeve: like Naaman, we respect all the faiths of the countries in which we dwell, but, inside, we worship only the Lord God of Israel.