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There were four lepers at the gates of Samaria. One said to the other: 'Why are we sitting here waiting to die? … Let us desert to the (besieging enemy) Aramean camp. If they let us live, we will live. If they kill us, we will die.' (Kings II 7:3-4)
This Haftara takes place within the activities of the Prophet Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. Both were active in the Northern Kingdom approximately a century after it had broken off with the Southern Kingdom, following the death of King Solomon. They both brought the word of G-d to its people during a period where the Ten Tribes were generally physically barred from traveling to the First Temple in Jerusalem.
The narrative of the Haftara is within a very dark period of the Northern Kingdom - when the capital, Samaria, was in the last stages of famine from a prolonged Aramean (Syrian) siege. The text relates that the famine was so acute that women were being forced to eat their children (6:28), and an ass' head sold for eighty pieces of silver (6:25). The king (un-named) blamed Elisha for his failure in appealing to G-d for help, and dispatched an envoy to assassinate him. Elisha barred the door, but called out the messenger that tomorrow the price of the best flour will have dropped to one shekel at the gate of Samaria. As the envoy ridiculed Elisha, he added: 'You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall eat none of it'. (7:2). How that came to pass through the four lepers is the subject of the Haftara.
The four lepers were excluded from the city - according to the guidelines of the Parasha. They knew that there was nothing to eat where they were, and nothing to eat if they broke the law and entered the city. In desperation, and knowing they had nothing to lose, they infiltrated the enemy camp at twilight in search of food. To their astonishment, the enemy camp was deserted: perceiving the great powers of Egypt and the Hittites on their way to help the besieged Northern Kingdom, they abandoned camp in a hurry, fleeing for their lives without even bothering to pack up… The lepers looted the camp and brought the news of the lifting of the siege back to Samaria. It was not, as the king first suspected, at trap to lure them out of the city, but the enemy were indeed no longer at the gates, and there were strewn weapons and clothes to mark the Aramean's leaving in a great haste… Then the Israelites looted the Aramean camp and the amount of food available meant that its price dropped - even to the extent that the best flour fell to one shekel - as Elisha indeed prophesized the day before. The envoy officer indeed saw the sudden abundance of food whose availability he scoffed the day before, but as Elisha exclaimed the day before, he did not live to enjoy it as he was trampled to death in the crush. (7:17-20)
Concerning Elisha: he was carrying on the work of Elijah after his death. Like Elijah, he fought against the paganism of the rulers of the Northern Kingdom. But unlike him, he did not operate alone. He created an organized following - a college of prophets - and he worked with the secular establishment (King Ahab the son of Omri and those after him in that Northern Kingdom dynasty of Omri) to obtain the religious reforms that Elijah had demanded. These failed to be long lasting, and their persistence in adhering to the pagan culture led to the overthrow of the entire House of Omri. Jehu massacred Ahab's royal house, 'and all his great men, and his kinsfolk, and his priests, until he left him none remaining.' (Kings II 10:11) Thus Ahab's seventy sons were decapitated and all the priests of Baal - the contemporary form of paganism - were assembled and slaughtered. As king, Jehu indeed temporarily restored the worship of G-d to the Northern Kingdom, but he soon found himself behaving in as arbitrary a manner as the House of Omri - and indeed virtually all the kings of Israel broke off with the worship of the Almighty sooner or later, right up to their capture and enforced exile under King Shalmanezzer V of the Assyrian Empire (720 BCE).
The Talmud (Sotah 47a) notes the tradition that the four lepers were none other than Gehazi and his sons. Gehazi was Elisha's main disciple (c.f. Kings II 4:12), and became a leper thorough Elisha. For earlier on, Elisha adamantly refused to take payment from the Aramean commander, Naaman - whom he cured from leprosy (5:14). However Gehazi slipped away from Elisha, caught up with Naaman on his way home and asked for a reward - ostensibly for his two disciples. Naaman gladly gave him 'two talents of silver' and 'two changes of clothing' (5:22). Gehazi returned to Elisha and he found out that Gehazi took a gift from Naaman. He therefore exclaimed 'Naaman's leprosy will cling to you and your children forever!' Naaman left him, leprous as snow. (5:27)
Thus Gehazi was punished for his greed. In addition, he also appears to have been jealous of his position. For after he fell from grace, Elisha's disciples asked Elisha for permission to seek larger premises for their living quarters (6:1). The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:2) suggests that this section was placed in the text right after Gehazi's expulsion, in order to hint at a sudden influx of new disciples - Gehazi had tried to restrict the number of members and discourage newcomers. That might well include possible competitors…
Following these Rabbinical traditions, the irony of the text of the Haftara is that salvation came to the Israelites in Samaria through none other than the disgraced man himself - Gehazi. The man who caused an act of bringing the Torah way of life into disrepute by taking money from the gentile Naaman (Bamidbar Rabba 7:5), and preventing Elisha's work having influence through more disciples, was the very person who saved the population of the city of Samaria from death through siege and famine. Why, of all people, was Gehazi the agent for the task? What may be learnt from this apparent irony?
In response, the situation had two sides. Elisha showed great zeal for sanctifying the name of G-d. As the Midrash (ibid) states:
Whoever profanes the Name of Heaven is stricken with leprosy, as in the case of Gehazi, who pursued Naaman to take money from him… Elisha sanctified the Name of the Holy One… by not accepting anything from Naaman, but Gehazi pursued him and swore falsely that [Elisha] had sent him for money. Thus, he profaned the Name of Heaven that Elisha had sanctified.
His teacher, Elijah the Prophet, showed similar zeal for sanctifying G-d. After the miracle at Mount Carmel when he brought the fire down from Heaven, he slaughtered the prophets of the pagan Baal at the Kishon River. As he said to G-d later on when he fled to Mount Horeb: (Kings I 19:10,14)
I have been very zealous for G-d… for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, destroyed Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword.
Abarbanel comments that G-d was not entirely satisfied with that answer to His question - 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' G-d, explains Abarbanel, wanted Elijah to realize that he was not worthy to stand on Mount Horeb - in the place of Moses. That was because Elijah had taken the law into his own hands by decreeing the drought (17:1), and arranging the trial at Mount Carmel. Thus G-d wanted Elijah to repent for his rashness - even though he meant well, and even though G-d did overall approve of his actions.
Elisha's zeal in his instantaneous 'Naaman's leprosy will cling to you and your children forever!' (Kings II 5:27) was of a similar stamp to Elijah's. Reprehensible as Gehazi's behavior appears on first sight, it may not have been entirely unreasonable. After all, Elisha had a college of prophets (6:1) under him, and as an ex-ploughman (c.f. Kings I 19:19), would probably been unable to finance such an institution from his own pocket. Naaman, by contrast, is described as having access to considerable wealth (c.f. Kings II 5:5), and could well afford to pay Elisha handsomely for curing him of leprosy. In addition, Gehazi was probably not unreasonable in restricting newcomers to Elisha's college: reasoning that in prophecy, the quality of students comes before the quantity…
Like Elijah, Elisha was right in the eyes of G-d. But, also like Elijah, G-d was not necessarily happy that Elisha took the law into his own hands with a similar zeal. The irony of G-d's bringing salvation through Gehazi - the very person who saved the population of the city of Samaria from death through siege and famine - was to teach a lesson. And that lesson is that zeal may be taken to extremes especially when there are other sides to the issue…
A lesson for people today - who zealously condemn and instantly pillory a wrongdoer though, for example, use of the mass media. Even if the person did wrong, there is often another side to the matter…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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