Haftarah Parshat Tazria-Metzorah
(2 Kings 7:3-20)
April 29, 2017 / 3 Iyar 5777
The heroes of this week’s haftarah are in a tragic situation. It was not enough that they were lepers, forced to live outside of the walls of the city on account of their condition, they were equally threatened by the Aramean army which had laid siege to the city, leaving the city’s inhabitants in a state of famine. None of their alternatives were satisfactory. If they entered the city, they would be subject to the famine which faced the inhabitants of the city. Their only other alternative was to enter the enemy camp and fall on its mercy. This obviously also had its risks. What were these poor souls to do? Their dialogue informs us of their decision: “Why sit here until we die? If we say we will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city; and if we sit here, we also die. Now therefore, let us fall on the Aramean camp; if they allow us to live, we will live and if they kill us, we will die.” (7:4-5) Miraculously for them, the enemy had abandoned their encampment, allowing the lepers to find the food they so desperately needed.
This story serves as precedent for a serious legal debate in the Talmud. The sages were pressed by the question of whether it was permissible for a Jewish patient to seek treatment from a non-Jewish doctor. (Remember, this question was being asked some 1500-1700 years ago when there was a real or perceived sense that the non-Jewish physician might do harm to his Jewish patient): “Said Rabbah in the name of Rabbi Yohanan [some say Rav Hisda in the name of Rabbi Yohanan]: In the case where it is doubtful whether [the patient] will live or die, we must not allow them (non-Jewish physicians) to heal; but if he will certainly die [without treatment], we may allow them (non-Jewish physicians) to heal. [You say:] ‘Die [etc.]’! Surely there is still the life of the hour [to be considered]? [namely, every moment of life is precious so even those moments cannot be risked by seeking treatment from a non-Jewish doctor.] The life of the hour is not to be considered. By what authority do you say that the life of the hour is not to be considered? [We learn this from] scripture: ‘If we say: we will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city, and we shall die there etc.’ Now there is the life of the hour [which they might forfeit]! This implies that the life of the hour is not to be considered.” (Avodah Zarah 27b)
This passage, obviously, does not speak to us today on the question of whether someone can seek healing from a non-Jew since it is our assumption that those who practice medicine only seek the best for their patients. It does, however, offer some advice on the subject of risk taking in medical procedures. The Talmud sees this story as a precedent for risking short term life for the sake of cure.