The Parsha of Tazria spends the bulk of its text on the diagnosis of the Biblical disease, Tzaraat, “leprosy.” In his summation of the Laws of the Impurity of Leprosy (16:10), the Rambam points out that the term “Tzaraat” covers so many unrelated symptoms that it cannot possibly refer to a natural malady, but is rather a supernatural phenomenon whose purpose was to cause people to reevaluate their behavior. The particular behavior that the Rambam singles out as the cause of Tzaraat is Lashon Hara, speaking in a derogatory manner about other people. A person who makes a habit of doing so will first see signs of Tzaraat on the walls of his house. If he stops his behavior, the house can be purified; if not, the house will need to be destroyed and it will affect the furniture, then the clothes, and ultimately his own skin, and he will be isolated so that he is unable to speak with anyone about anything. The purpose of all this is to shock a person into changing his behavior and the dismissive attitude that underlies it.
Whereas the Rambam focuses on Lashon Hara as the behavior that Tzaraat is meant to reverse, the Midrash lists several other behaviors and character traits that cause it. One of them is the subject of the Haftorah of Tazria.
מכאן א”ר יהודה הלוי ב”ר שלום על י”א דברים הצרעת באה על קללת השם ועל גילוי עריות ועל שפיכות דמים ועל האומר על חבירו דבר שאינו בו ועל גסות הרוח ועל הנכנס בתחום שאינו שלו ועל לשון שקר ועל הגניבות ועל שבועת שקר ועל המחלל שם שמים ועל עבודת כוכבים … ועל גסות הרוח זה נעמן שנאמר (מלכים ב ה) (ונעמן) [שר צבא מלך ארם] היה איש גדול מהו גדול שהיתה רוחו גסה מפני שהיה גבור חיל ועל ידי כך נצטרע
R’ Yehuda HaLevi bar Shalom said: Tzaraat comes for 11 things: cursing Hashem, sexual immorality, murder, speaking lies against a friend, haughtiness, entering an area that is not for you, lying, stealing, swearing falsely, desecrating the Name of Heaven, and idolatry…. “Haughtiness:” that’s Naaman, as it says: “Naaman was a great man.” What is “great?” He was haughty and full of himself because he was a strong warrior, and for that he got Tzaraat (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbba 7:5)
The Haftorah introduces Na’aman thus:
וְנַעֲמָן שַׂר צְבָא מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם הָיָה אִישׁ גָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי אֲדֹנָיו וּנְשֻׂא פָנִים כִּי בוֹ נָתַן ה’ תְּשׁוּעָה לַאֲרָם וְהָאִישׁ הָיָה גִּבּוֹר חַיִל מְצֹרָע:
Na’aman, the general of the king of Aram, was a great man at court, and highly esteemed, for through him, Hashem had given victory to Aram. The man was a great warrior, a leper.
(Melachim II 5:1)
The Haftorah then describes how this great, famous, highly esteemed general of the Aramean court visits the prophet Elisha because he had been told that Elisha can cure him of his leprosy. He appears, as befitting a person of his rank and wealth, with an entourage of carriages and servants, in front of the hovel where Elisha lives in great poverty. Yet Elisha does not show him the slightest deference. Not only does he not fawn upon Na’aman, he does not even bother to come out to greet him. He simply sends a servant with instructions to immerse seven times in the Jordan River. The Haftorah records Naaman’s reaction to this treatment:
וַיִּקְצֹף נַעֲמָן וַיֵּלַךְ וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה אָמַרְתִּי אֵלַי יֵצֵא יָצוֹא וְעָמַד וְקָרָא בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֱ-לֹהָיו וְהֵנִיף יָדוֹ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם וְאָסַף הַמְּצֹרָע: הֲלֹא טוֹב אֲמָנָה וּפַרְפַּר נַהֲרוֹת דַּמֶּשֶׂק מִכֹּל מֵימֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֲלֹא אֶרְחַץ בָּהֶם וְטָהָרְתִּי וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּלֶךְ בְּחֵמָה:
Na’aman got angry and stormed off. He said, “I had said to myself, he’s going to come out, and stand, and call in the name of Hashem his God, wave his hand over the place and the leprosy would go away. Aren’t Amana and Pharpor, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Yisrael? Can’t I bathe in them and be pure?” He turned and walked off in fury.
(Melachim II 5:11-12)
Na’aman feels that he knows what the treatment for his leprosy should be like, and what will and will not work. As a “great and highly esteemed” personage, he is sure that he knows everything there is to know, and deserves every attention and consideration, and if someone who is so clearly beneath him violates his expectations, he loses his temper and storms off.
Fortunately for Na’aman, his servants convince him that he has nothing to lose in following the prophet’s prescription, and he does immerse in the Jordan River. This concession to the possibility that there is a Greater Power is enough for his Tzaraat to be cured. Na’aman goes back to Elisha to thank him and offers him a generous honorarium. Elisha categorically refuses to accept a penny from Na’aman. One might have thought that Na’aman would be insulted by this refusal and that it would be further provocation to anger, but instead we see a remarkable shift in Na’aman’s attitude:
וַיֹּאמֶר נַעֲמָן וָלֹא יֻתַּן נָא לְעַבְדְּךָ מַשָּׂא צֶמֶד פְּרָדִים אֲדָמָה כִּי לוֹא יַעֲשֶׂה עוֹד עַבְדְּךָ עֹלָה וָזֶבַח לֵאלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים כִּי אִם לַה’
Na’aman said, “If not, then let your servant be given some earth that a pair of mules could carry. For your servant will no longer make sacrifices to other gods, except to Hashem. (Melachim II 5:18)
Na’aman, who was introduced as a “great man at court, highly respected,” who sneered at the suggestion that the Jordan River would effect a cure when the rivers of his own country would not, ends up begging for some dirt from Eretz Yisrael.
The Haftorah shows us that Tzaraat is meant to serve as a catalyst for change. If someone as proud and prejudiced as Na’aman had been can learn to see past his ego, then so can we. When we look down at other people, or seek to raise ourselves in the eyes of our friends by taking down those around us, we are guilty of haughtiness as Na’aman had been. We might not even be aware that we are being led astray by our egos. Tzaraat is a supernatural wake-up call to examine ourselves, to alter our behavior and revise our attitude before things get even worse. Tzaraat is reversible, and so are our character flaws.
Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל