“He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” II Kings 5:1
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A challenging double portion, consumed with skin complaints, house mould, impurity and far removed from our own experience. The affliction of leprosy, tzara’at, appears in both the associated haftarot; while Metzora’s (read this week) tells of the four starving lepers during the siege of Samaria, the haftarah for Tazria is about Na’aman.
Na’aman is introduced as captain of the army of the king of Aram, a mighty man of valour but who was a leper. “The buts of life can be even more grim and heartbreaking than the ifs,” Rabbi J. H. Hertz remarks in his commentary.
Hertz’s compassion illuminates the text and the Torah it echoes. Suffering, psychological or physical, is one of the few things that can transform the sweet savour of success into the taste of ashes. Na’aman’s prowess and zest is not diminished by leprosy but he is defined by it. He’s equally defined by a desperation for a cure, expecting the prophet Elisha to “wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy”. Instead Elisha advises washing in the Jordan river seven times. Na’aman did not receive a cure but he did heal as a result of Elisha’s advice, which he took only reluctantly.
Managing illness, advice and hopes is familiar to those who are ill. Being defined by illness is inevitable but the Second Book of Kings offers an insight into how that can play out. In a beautiful piece in the Talmud, Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba falls ill, Rabbi Yochanan visits and asks “Are your sufferings dear to you?” Rabbi Hiyya replies “Neither they nor their reward” and reaches out his hand (Berachot 5b).
The Talmud suggests kindness, unexpected, can be hugely restorative. Sometimes it’s the unlikeliest advice or expression of comfort that can help recovery. Challenging definitions can challenge prognosis.