Friday, April 11, 2008

The four metzora'im - then and now

First, I could have titled this post "The four lepers" in accord with most English Bible translations, but that would be incorrect. From the description of tzara'at and the metzora in the Torah, it is very unlikely that the Torah is referring to what was known as leprosy and is now known as Hansen's Disease. I have had issues with Artscroll (see Kosher Textbooks: Boon or Boondoggle) but they are to be commended for transliterating rather than attempting to render into English tzara'at and its cognates, and stating flat out that the words are impossible to translate accurately. One of my teachers in Yeshiva of Flatbush, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, taught us that tzara'at was not a physical disease but rather a "theological disease" that no longer occurs. Nevertheless, there are timeless lessons to be drawn from its former existence, and so it was included in the Torah.

This week's haftara deals with four metzora'im who figured in a disastrous siege of Shomron, capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, by its perpetual enemy Aram. The famine was so desperate that mothers were cooking and eating their own children, lo aleinu. The four metzora'im were living outside the city gates as halakha requires (a halakha that apparently was observed even though most of the Northern Kingdom was enmeshed in avoda zara!) and were so hungry that they decided to throw themselves on the enemy camp. When they entered the camp, they found it empty of soldiers but full of food, equipment and animals that the enemy abandoned in panic. The haftara tells us how the Arameans heard mysterious loud noises in the night, told one another fantastic tales about powerful outside nations coming to the aid of Israel, and fled in fear. When the metzora'im came inside the gates and told the king's courtiers what they had seen, the king did not believe them and needed to be persuaded to risk two chariots and horsemen to investigate. They came back reporting that the entire road was littered with clothing and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in panic so as to run away from the Jews faster. The king's right hand man, who had mocked Elisha the day before when the prophet foretold a miraculous deliverance, was assigned to patrol the gates and trampled to death by the people who were rushing out to buy food at unbelievably low prices, as per Elisha's prophecy.
Those of us who lived through the Six Day War will recognize some beautiful parallels. When it became clear that the Arabs were going to lose and lose miserably, Nasser of Egypt and Hussein of Jordan concocted from whole cloth a story about the Americans and British entering the war on Israel's side. And the demoralized Arab soldiers, the Egyptians in particular, left mountains of shoes in the desert so as to run faster (they couldn't outrun Israeli tanks and so many were captured that the Israelis did not have where to put them). At the time there were no specialized running shoes; if there were and I was an ad man for a running shoe company, I would have written the mother of all running shoe ads - if the Egyptians were running in our shoes they wouldn't have left them in the Sinai Desert.
The haftara tells of a highly placed Jew of little faith who could only mock when a prophet of God told him of the coming salvation, and today we are sorely plagued by highly placed men of little faith who wring their hands at the present situation and, sixty years after the founding of the State, openly ask if it can long endure. We have to learn to take yes for an answer; there is a God and he is running things. He works in strange ways, and salvation can come from a time and place when we would least expect it.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, if you have the opportunity, read Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's explanation of tzara'as. He clearly shows, using the text, that this is a spiritual illness manifesting with physical signs as a warning from God about certain undesirable behaviours.

This plays out in the haftarah as one theory suggests that the leader of the 4 "lepers" was Gechazi, the former attendant to Elisha Hanavi who was known to be greedy and lascivious.

As for the Six Day War, there's an interesting story as to why Jordan got involved halfway through when Egypt was already retreating and the Syrians were having second thoughts. Seems that Nasser, desperate for help, called up Hussein and told him that the
Egyptians were triumphantly marching towards Tel Aviv and that if he wanted anything of Israel, he'd have to join in right away. Certainly a great story to go along with the parashah.

Sun Apr 13, 09:10:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw your post on Maryles and just wanted to give a shout out. I too am a civil servant (Feds) and also couldn't give a rat's ass about those who I once had great respect for, before the blinders came off.

Joseph

Mon Apr 14, 10:22:00 PM EDT  

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