(2 Kings 7:3-20)
7 Nisan 5768
April 12, 2008
This week\’s haftarah relates the story of an anonymous group of lepers caught at the entrance to the city, unable, on the one hand, to enter the city because of their contagious condition and, on the other hand, unable to escape because the city is under siege by the Arameans. They seek to ameliorate their plight by seeking the mercy of the enemy. When they approach the enemy camp, they find it abandoned. Initially their behavior is self-centered as they search for food and wealth, but their concern turns to their compatriots, trapped in the city, and they apprise them of the new circumstances.
The heroic behavior of these leprous men is enhanced by their anonymity since it is assumed that people rarely perform heroic behavior without promise of fame. The sages, however, found a different lesson in this story by attempting to reveal the identity of its unsung heroes. This is a general tendency among Talmudic sages, to seek passionately to identify the Bible\’s anonymous figures, often lending a new character to the stories they interpreted. (See Y. Heineman, Darchei Agadah, pp. 28-32)
In the following interpretation Rabbi Yochanan identifies these four lepers with Gehazzi, the prophet Elisha\’s servant, and his three sons, tying the story found in our haftarah with another story about a leper told two chapters earlier (chapter 5) in the book of 2 Kings. In that story, the Aramean general, Naaman, who was also a leper, came to Elisha to be healed. Elisha heals this heathen general miraculously but refuses payment for this service, instead seeing it as a means of sanctifying God\’s name. Gehazi, Elisha\’s servant who is astonished by this behavior, chases after Naaman and asks for payment, keeping the payment for himself.
The Talmud picks up the story from here: And Naaman said, Be content, take two talents [of silver]. And Naaman urged him [to take it], and bound [for him two talents of silver in two bags. . .] [When Gehazzi returned,] Elisha said to him, Where have you been, Gehazi? And he said, Your servant has not gone anywhere. But Elisha said to him, Didn\’t my heart go along with you, when the man [Naaman] turned again from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep and oxen, and menservants and maidservants? But had Gehazzi taken so much [that Elisha treated him so harshly]?… When Gehazzi returned, Elisha saw a leprous eruption on his head. ‘You wicked man,’ Elisha cried out, ‘the time has come for you to receive your reward. [So] ‘The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto you, and unto your seed for ever.’ And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.
And there were four leprous men at the entering in of the gate. R. Johanan said: They were Gehazi and his three sons.
Our Rabbis taught [concerning this episode]: Let the left hand repulse but the right hand always invite back: not like the case of Elisha, who thrust Gehazi away with both hands.
(abridged and adapted from Sanhedrin 107b)
The sages learn from this story that even in situations which warrant a harsh response, a person should nevertheless be judicious in his or her treatment of others, lest one\’s actions cause an irreconcilable break. The sages felt that Elisha, who was totally justified in his anger at Gehazzi, still should not have created a situation where Gehazzi could never return.