(2 Kings 7:3-20)
April 21, 2007
The heroes of this story are four leprous men, lodged at the gates of a city under siege. The city is suffering from famine, the people on the verge of starvation. These men, as lepers, were not permitted to live in the city. They, too, were dying of starvation and without potential means for survival, the doors of a famine ridden city closed to them on one side and the enemy on the other. Lacking alternatives, they chose to try their luck by approaching the enemy camp, seeking mercy: \”They said to one another, \’Why should we sit here waiting for death? If we decide to go into town, what with the famine in the town, we shall die there; and if we just sit here, still we die. Come, let us desert to the Aramean camp. If they let us live, we shall live; and if they put us to death, we shall but die.\’\” (Verse 3-4)
The Talmud offered divergent advice for those faced by famine, like the lepers, and those faced by plague: \”Our Rabbis taught: When there is a plague in the town keep your feet inside [the house] (stay home), as it says, \’And none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning\’ (Exodus 12:22), and it also says [elsewhere], \’Come, my people, enter into your room and shut your doors behind you\’ (Isaiah 26:20); and it is again said: The sword [of the Angel of Death] is outside, the terror within shall destroy\’ (Deut. 32:25). [Nevertheless, it is more dangerous outside.] What need is there for all these verses? [Why wouldn\’t one verse suffice to illustrate this point?] [The Talmud retorts:] Since you might think that the advice given above refers only to the night, but not to the day. Therefore, come and hear: \’Come, my people, enter into your room and shut your doors behind you\’ And should you say that these apprehensions apply only where there is no terror inside, but where there is terror inside it is much better to go out and sit among people in one company, again come and hear: The sword is outside, the terror within shall destroy, implying that [even where] the terror is \’within\’ the \’sword\’ will destroy [more] without. In the time of an epidemic Raba used to keep the windows shut, as it is written: \’For death is come up into our windows.\’ (Jeremiah 9:20)
[On the other hand] our Rabbis taught: When there is a famine in town, withdraw your feet [namely, leave], as stated, \’And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there\’ (Genesis 12:10); and it also says: If we say: \’Why should we sit here waiting for death? If we decide to go into town, what with the famine in the town, we shall die there.\’ Why is there a need for additional verses? Since you might think that this advice applies only where there is no danger to life [in the new settlement], but where there is a danger to life [in the new place] this should not be undertaken, come and hear: \’Come, let us desert to the Aramean camp. If they let us live, we shall live; and if they put us to death, we shall but die.\’ (Adapted from Bava Kama 60b)
In the case of famine, the lepers were allowed to flee to the enemy camp since it provided them with the possibility to save their lives. The fate of the inhabitants of a city stricken by plague is different since the danger exists outside. Rabbi Jacob ben Moshe Moelin (Maharil -14-15th century) limits the application of the Talmud\’s decision regarding plague. He asserts that one should actually flee the onslaught of a plague if possible. It is only advantageous to remain closed up in one\’s home once the plague has afflicted the city. (See Responsa Maharil 41) Rabbi Moshe Isserles includes this decision in a long list of laws where he advises people to avoid dangerous situations. This, he asserts, supersedes even the avoidance of prohibited things. (Shulhan Aruh Y.D. 116:4 Rema) These sources lead us to the conclusion that the preservation of life is an ultimate value incumbent on each of us as individuals and on the community as a whole.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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