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A Comedy of Errors: Haftarat Tazria, 2 Kings 4:42-5:19

by Jonathan Zasloff

March 28, 2014 | 9:10 am

And now for something completely different.

We generally do not regard the Tanach as a comic masterpiece, and with good reason: it is generally not very funny. But there are exceptions, and Haftarat Tazria is one of them. What’s more, its humor opens up profound reflections on ancient Jewish political theory and the very nature of religious faith. In particular, it has particular import for American Jews: Haftarat Tazria presents us with both the promise and peril of being Jewish in a liberal democracy.

Haftarat Tazria centers on the Aramean general Naaman.  The general is afflicted with a skin disease called Tzaarat, often (mis)translated as leprosy but more likely something painful but not deadly.  Nothing seems to work for it. The family has an Israelite servant girl, who suggests that Naaman “come before the prophet in Samaria; he will cure him of his leprosy.”  Not a bad idea, thinks Naaman, who asks his boss, Aram’s king.  The king agrees, and sends Naaman to the King of Israel with a message asking him to cure the general.

Chaos ensues.  The letter asks Israel’s king to cure Naaman’s disease. But “when the king of Israel read the letter, he rent his clothes and cried, ‘Am I God, to deal death or give life, that this fellow writes to me to cure a man of tzaraat?”  Israel’s king takes the request to be a trap, for once the king says he won’t cure the tzaraat, this will serve as a pretext for a declaration of war. Fortunately enough, the prophet Elisha hears what happens and tells the king to chill out. “Why have you rent your clothes? Have him come to me, and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha takes care of it (about which more below) and the kingdom is saved at least for the time being.

People in my business – lawyers and legal scholars – would call this a separation-of-powers problem. The Israelite servant girl tells her master to go to Israel’s prophet: Naaman and the Aramean ruler take it to mean that they should appeal to Israel’s king, seemingly failing to recognize either that 1) they are two different people, or 2) the king can’t just order the prophet around. That hardly makes the Arameans foolish. For many ancient civilizations, the king held both spiritual and temporal power. Egypt’s Pharaoh was considered a god on earth; Roman emperors were routinely proclaimed deities. It certainly stood to reason for Arameans that if they want to benefit from Israelite prophecy, they should talk to the king.

Except that in ancient Israel, it didn’t work like that.  The rabbis could say with justification that Israel is adorned with three crowns: kingship, priesthood, and Torah. (Avot 4:13). That in turn implied that Torah and priests could challenge and criticize the king – they were not his supine agents. Prophets represented Torah, as rabbis later did (although both prophets and rabbis had priestly representation), and both challenged kings.

Indeed, challenging royalty serves as a prophetic hallmark. This challenge sharply divides Chumash from Nevi’im, and thus Torah from Haftarah.  In Deuteronomy 17:15, the Israelites are commanded, “be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses”.  In Nevi’im, however, we not only get famous stories such as Nathan rebuking David over Bathsheba, but Samuel’s warning to monarchists of any era that royal power inevitably ends in tyranny, corruption and oppression. (1 Samuel 8:10-18.) The Israelites, thirsting for a warrior, demand a king anyway, an insistence that (as God acknowledges) means that “they have rejected Me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8:7) Prophecy exists in no small part to chastise royal classes. Naaman’s bumbling mistake, then, powerfully divides Israel from its neighbors.

Ancient Israel is not the origins of modern democracy, and Haftarat Tazria is not the inspiration for Montesquieu (who first separated governmental powers into legislative, executive, and judicial powers). But Haftarat Tazria contends that God does not simply speak to or through the king, that others can have greater power than the king, and (by implication) that God can speak to all.

If we want something that speaks even more directly to the contemporary Jewish predicament, we might look a little later in the Haftarah.  After nearly starting an international incident, Naaman finally gets to Elisha, asks Elisha to cure him, Elisha tells him how to cure his disease – and then Naaman complains about it!

Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman was angered and walked away. ‘I thought,’ he said, ‘he would surely come out to me, and would stand and invoke the Lord his God by name, and would wave his hand toward the spot, and cure the affected part. Are not the Amanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? I could bathe in them and be clean!’ And he stalked off in a rage. (5:9-12).

Elisha legitimately might have thought that no good deed goes unpunished. What kind of buffoon rejects a cure based on style points?

But we can easily draw an analogy between Naaman’s reaction and those who reject Jewish spirituality. Naaman rejects Elisha’s cure because it seems too hard and complicated. Why can’t you just wave your hands a few times and have done with it?

You can’t because spirituality is not McDonald’s. True religious experience cannot be put on a timetable, and it will not arrive in two minutes.  The faster a spiritual experience comes, the weaker its force will be. Naaman’s servants understand this. “Sir,” they said, “if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, ‘Bathe and be clean.’” (5:13).

The servants’ argument persuades the general, who goes to the Jordan River, is cured -- and then compounds his mistake by proclaiming, “now I know that there is no God in the world except in Israel!” That has to be wrong. Indeed, it is the equal and opposite mistake that Naaman made earlier.  He wants an instant cure, and when it isn’t instant enough, he balks.  Then he gets a relatively instant cure and becomes a devoted follower of God. What will happen when tragedy hits him – as it hits all of us – and he does not receive succor?

Free societies tempt religions to sell themselves by promising conversions and cures such as that received by Naaman. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States, because our commitment to religious freedom accompanies a vigorous market economy: the distinction can quickly and easily blur between believers and consumers. But when it comes to God, the customer is not always right.

Faith is a struggle. If you have not been disappointed by God, then you have not had a relationship with God. Prayer is always answered – and often, the answer is “no.” To be a Jew means accepting that answer while raging against it, and creating meaning while dwelling under the yoke of the universe.

Sincere, confused Naaman, who can’t tell a king from a prophet and gets a little impatient in services, thus serves as both a comic and tragic mirror of ourselves. We can laugh pretty easily at him, but after a few minutes, we realize that the joke is on us.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jonathan Zasloff is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches Property, Land Use and Urban Planning Law, Legislation, and Talmud, and a ordination candidate...

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