Friday, April 28, 2017

Tazria-Metzora: Learning From the Outcasts

I don't often use this forum to speak about the Haftarot that accompany each Torah portion. Technically speaking, this blog is called "Take on Torah," and
none of the Haftarah texts come from the Torah. What can I say, I'm a rule-follower! You see, our most narrow definition of "Torah" is the Five Books of Moses, and every, single Haftarah was chosen from a DIFFERENT part of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible - from the prophets, the Holy Writings, almost anywhere else BUT the Torah itself - and attached to a Torah portion. One possible origin of the custom of chanting Haftarot relates back to a time when the Jews were forbidden from reading out of the Torah itself. So they chanted OTHER texts instead, but ones which subtly and secretly helped them remember which Torah portion SHOULD be read each week. Pretty sly... Well, this week I'm making an exception, so that I can talk about everyone's favorite topic: Leprosy.

Let's face it; our parashah is not an easy one to discuss. It focuses on a lot of laws of purity and impurity, skin conditions, menstrual regulations, mold on clothing and walls, etc., etc. In short, it highlights a lot of (our) dis-ease with disease. So, having spent all this time in the Torah talking about bodily ailments, the Haftarah continues the theme, in a way, with an odd story about lepers.
This tale comes from the Second Book of Kings. Four (unnamed) lepers are living in exile, shunned by their community. Cast out, they decide to try their luck at an Aramean battle camp. The Arameans are enemies of Israel, but the lepers figure, "hey, what've we got to lose??" To their surprise, they enter a desolate camp, and the narrator of the story explains that God fooled the Arameans by conjuring up the sound of thundering armies, and everyone abandoned the encampment and fled to the hills. First, the lepers eat and drink to their hearts' content (and even bury a little bit of blundered loot because... why not?). But then they say to one another, "We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! ... Come, let us go and inform the king's palace." (7:9) The Israelites rejoice at this news, and all ends happily.

So what is the point of this strange, surprising, and even somewhat comical vignette? I think it is a subtle critique of hierarchies within society. ALL societies. As the names suggest, the two Books of Kings mainly feature royalty, priests,
prophets, and the leaders of our communities. But sometimes we can also learn important lessons from those with the least amount of social capital; the outcasts, the recluses, those looked down upon by others. If for no other reason, because positions change! Just because you're at the top NOW doesn't mean you'll stay there forever, and vice versa. So the protagonists - sort of - in this story are the lepers. Sure, it's incidental and the "real" hero is actually God. But no one else would ever casually saunter into an enemy camp. It is more likely that the Israelites would never find out, while the Arameans eventually might discover that no enemies were really attacking, and they would resume their posts. The lepers are instrumental to the story, and ultimately THEY are the ones who do the right thing and inform the king and their compatriots... people who - let's not forget - had excommunicated these afflicted individuals in the first place!

I think, perhaps, that we are all meant to learn some important lessons from this story: Don't judge a book by its cover. Or as the ancient rabbis put it: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) In the right circumstance, ANYONE can be your teacher. And remember that
positions change. When we are low, we want to be treated with respect and kindness. Therefore, when we are higher up, we must be the ones to model these same behaviors. Sometimes phrases like "be kind to others" become so cliché and rote, we just roll our eyes and treat them like white noise. And yet, it's STILL a serious problem in society. Who are the lepers today? Who do we discount, ignore, shun, and even mock? Why and when do we exile people from our communities and beyond our borders, and what can and do we demand of them for reentry? Like our cliché expressions, stories like this one about the lepers are easy to ignore and brush off. But we shouldn't. Because they actually reflect our communities TODAY, and in every generation. Details of the stories change in each new century, but the underlying message remains the same. So take care of the lepers! Some day, that might be you...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "Four Lepers Bring the News to the Guard at the Gate of Samaria," courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Anandajoti on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

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