Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59
The Haftarah selection is from Kings II, 4:42-5:19.
In the Torah, Parashat Tazria describes the biblical affliction known as tzaraat, normally translated as leprosy. (Though the skin disease in the Bible is afflicted by God as a punishment for certain transgressions, and differs from what is considered leprosy today.) In the haftarah for Tazria, the appearance of this same kind of leprosy leads to a life-changing experience for a general in the Aramean army.
As the haftarah begins, a man brings the prophet Elisha 20 loaves of bread. The prophet orders that the loaves be given to the people of the land, many of whom are suffering from poverty. Elisha’s servant protests, insisting that it will not be enough for the crowd, but Elisha promises a miracle: “The Eternal has said that they will eat and have some left over” (4:43). His prediction comes true, and there is enough to feed everyone.
The narrative jumps to the story of Naaman, a revered commander in the Aramean army. He was highly valued as a warrior and thought to be favored by God. However, strangely, he also has leprosy, which implies that there was a limit to this favor.
One day, his wife’s slave, who was originally from Israel, suggests that Naaman go to Samaria to be healed by a prophet there. Naaman asks permission from the Aramean king, who writes a letter to the king of Israel explaining that he is sending Naaman to be healed of his leprosy.
When the king of Israel receives the letter, he thinks it is merely provocation to incite war, and tears his clothes in a gesture of mourning. Soon, he is visited by Elisha, who asks why he’s mourning. The king explains, and Elisha replies with confidence in his own healing powers: “Let this man (Naaman) come to me, and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel!” (5:8)
When Naaman comes, however, Elisha’s treatment is unexpected. The prophet tells Naaman to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River. This angers Naaman, who expects that Elisha “would come out and stand here and call out in the name of the Eternal his God, and wave his hand at the spot and cure the disease” (5:10). Naaman rants about how the Jordan is no better than the rivers back in Aramea, which apparently had failed to heal his leprosy.
Naaman’s followers aren’t as quick to dismiss Elisha. “Sir,” they say, “had the prophet asked you to do something elaborate, surely you would have done it. Why not do it, then, when he only asks you to wash and be clean?” (5:13)
So Naaman consents to follow Elisha’s advice. He goes down to the Jordan, strips, and dips–and his flesh becomes clear like the flesh of a small child. He and his entourage return to Elisha, where Naaman admits: “Now I know that the God of Israel is the only God in the whole world” (5:15). He offers a gift, which Elisha declines, saying that God is not interested in gifts.
Naaman declares faithfulness to the God of Israel, with one caveat: “When my master goes to the temple of [the god] Rimmon,” Naaman says, “and he leans on my arm so that I must bow down…I hope God will forgive me this one thing” (5:18). In reply, Elisha tells him: “Go in peace” (5:19).