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Parshiot 04/16/2010

Parshiot Tazria-Metzora

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

This week I’d actually like to turn to the Haftarot of Parshiot Tazria and Metzora.  Since the two portions are combined (they are only read separately during leap years) only the Haftarah of Metzora is read, but actually the two portions are related.  The first portion details the prophet Elisha’s healing of Naaman, the chief of staff of the Aramean army, who was afflicted with tzara’at (the spiritual malady that appears as a skin condition, as described in our Parashah).  Actually, his healing is a lot simpler than the procedure outlined in our Parashah – Naaman is told to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan; when he does this he is miraculously completely healed.  He then offers a large sum of money to Elisha, who refuses any payment.  Impressed, Naaman swears allegiance to H” and goes home.

Some verses later, after the end of our reading, there is another twist to the story.  Elisha’s attendant, Gechazi, follows after Naaman and solicits, successfully, some of the payment that Naaman originally offered Elisha.  Elisha curses Gechazi (and his sons, who apparently were complicit in the caper) that they bear Naaman’s tzara’at condition forever.

Turning to the Haftarah of Parashat Metzora, we find that 4 men who have tzara’at are sitting outside the gates of the city of Shomron (Samaria), the capital of the Northern Kingdom – a metzora’ is required to seclude himself outside the “camp,” which in the case of a walled city means outside the walls of the city.  The men realize that whether they are inside the city or outside of it, they are going to die because the city is under siege by the Arameans.  They therefore decide to throw themselves on the mercy of the invaders, and enter the camp, only to find that all the soldiers had disappeared, leaving all their belongings and animals (see the text for the details).  After taking some of the camp goods for themselves they decide that what they are selfishly doing is wrong and they make their way back to town and inform the authorities that the siege has been broken.

Our Rabbis connect these two haftarot (the first is found in II Kings 4:42-5:19 and the second a couple of chapters later, II Kings 7:3-20) by identifying the 4 mysterious men as none other than Gechazi and his sons.  They also proceed to criticize Elisha for cursing Gechazi in perpetuity, thus precluding the possibility of repentence.

This criticism may have been prompted by the fact that the 4 metzora’im actually do repent of their initial actions.  They are of course famished, and can be excused for slaking their hunger immediately, but they also demonstrate their attachment to material things by sequestering other camp goods for themselves.  But then they turn around and admit that “what we are doing is not right” – and proceed to correct their actions.

Our Midrash has Elisha protesting that he knew by Divine inspiration that Gechazi would not repent, and therefore the curse was justified.  In a similar vein, a later King of Yehudah, Chizkiahu, was sick and dying; he is chastised by Isaiah for not marrying and having children (this is a positive commandment incumbent on all Jewish men – women, although obviously necessarily involved, are exempt from the obligation because of the danger involved in pregnancy and childbirth).  Chizkiahu replies that he knew by Divine inspiration that [some of] his descendents will be evil.  Isaiah replies that this is no excuse: “You do what is incumbent on you and Gd will bring about whatever outcome He desires.”  In the words of another tradition: “You have control over action alone, never over its fruits.”  Chizkiahu repents of his decision and is granted additional years.  One of his descendents in fact is Menashe, one of the worst idolators ever to sit on the throne of Yehudah.  However even Menashe repents in his later years, after doing untold damage to the nation.

I believe these stories have a common thread.  It is always possible to repent.  And if we are in a position to encourage repentance, it is our duty to do so.  It is always possible to repent because human beings have free will, and, as we have discussed many times, this free will is an essential component of creation.  Without free will the universe would simply be an automaton, mechanical and soulless.  Free will is the soul’s ability to make moral choices, for good or bad.  But as long as there is free will, there must be a mechanism for correcting the errors that finite creatures will inevitably make.  This mechanism is t’shuvah, repentance; thus our tradition tells us that t’shuvah too is built into the very fabric of creation.

Our Parshiot tell the story of error and repentance as played out in the body of the individual, in clothing and even in housing.  Tzara’at is the consequence of sin, and the curing and purification of the tzara’at is through t’shuvah.  Our Haftarot spell out this story in practical terms, and our Sages fill in the gaps by urging and encouraging us to take the story personally.  When we are honest with ourselves we recognize the level of our failure to meet Gd’s ideal for us.  We can look to the metzora and his purification as our encouragement to pick ourselves up when we fall and keep moving forward.  As long as we are moving forward, Gd in His great mercy will draw closer to us until the ideal life becomes our living reality.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 5: Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community; do not believe in yourself until the day you die…

Two points here are very relevant to our theme of t’shuvah.  First, it is easier to do t’shuvah in a community, provided of course that the community is supportive of one’s efforts.  Especially when we are starting out on a path of change from our old ways of thinking and acting, we want to attach ourselves to a community where the new ideals we seek to adopt are supported.  It is hard enough to buck the trends of the larger society, how much more so when we ourselves are enmeshed and ensnared in those very trends.  Second, the process of t’shuvah must be continual.  As R. Eliezer the Great told his students: “Repent one day before your death.”  They asked him “Does one know the day he will die?”  He replied, “Therefore repent every day!” – spend your entire life moving forward towards your ideals.