This week’s Haftarah recounts one of the most improbable military victories ever attributed to the ancient kingdom of Israel. Ben Haddad, king of Aram, had laid siege to Israel’s capital, Shomron (“Samaria”). Widespread famine shortly followed, and, as the city’s last reserves of food dwindled, some even turned to cannibalism in order to survive. Shomron was imploding. It was slated to fall any day—if not from within, surely from without.
Then, four lepers (metzorim) changed the course of history. These men had contracted a dreaded skin infection known as tzaraat—a form of spiritual “leprosy,” whose diagnosis and treatment constitutes the primary subject of this week’s double-Parshah, “Tazria/Metzora”—and had thus been quarantined outside the city gate. Since both Bnei Yisrael and the Arameans sought to avoid contact with them, they occupied a no-man’s land of sorts, languishing between the camps of both armies, yet welcomed by neither. It is against this backdrop that the events of our Haftarah unfold:
Now there were four men, stricken with tzaraat, at the entrance of the gate. And they said to each other, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say that we will come into the city, with the famine in the city, we will die there, and if we stay here we will die. So now, let us go and let us defect to the Aramean camp. If they spare us we will live, and if they kill us we will die.” And they arose in the evening to come to the Aramean camp. And they came to the edge of the Aramean camp, and behold, no one was there.
(Now the Lord had caused the Aramean camp to hear the sound of chariots and the sound of horses, the sound of a great army. And they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired for us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians to attack us.” And they picked themselves up and fled at dusk, leaving behind their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, the camp as it was, and they fled for their lives) […]
So the lepers came and called to the gatekeepers of the city [i.e. Samaria] and told them: “We came to the Aramean camp, and behold there is no man there nor the sound of a human, but the horses are tethered and the donkeys are tethered, and the tents are as they were.” And he called the gatekeepers; and they related it to the king’s palace inside.
And the king arose at night and said to his servants, “Now I will tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know that we are hungry. So they left the camp to hide in the field, saying, ‘When they come out of the city, we will seize them alive and enter the city.’ ” Now one of his servants called out and said, “Let them take now five of the remaining horses that are left there. Behold, they are like all the multitude of Israel that are left there, behold they are like all the multitude of Israel that have perished; and let us send and we will see.”
So they took two riders of horses, and the king sent them after the Aramean camp, saying, “Go and see.” And they followed them up to the Jordan, and behold all the way was full of garments and vessels that the Arameans had cast off in their haste; and the messengers returned and related it to the king. And the people went out and plundered the Aramean camp; and a seah of fine flour was sold for a shekel and two seahs of barley were sold for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord (II Kings 7:3-16).
The story our Haftarah, in a nutshell, is the story of Israel’s deliverance by hand of “the outcasts.” It offers us a profound example of how those whom society traditionally relegates to its margins (both socially and, in this case, spatially as well), often possess the capacity to benefit it in ways unique and indispensable.
To this extent, one could argue that the tale of the “four metzorim” might be best understood as a microcosm of the larger Sefer (“book”) of which it is a part. Officially, that Sefer is titled the “Second Book of Kings”—“Sefer Melachim Bet,” in Hebrew. Yet, like our Haftarah, much of its action is actually driven by protagonists whose social status tends less towards that of melachim and more towards that of metzorim: of “lepers,” proverbial and otherwise. Where earlier volumes of Nach (Yehoshua, Shofetim, Shmuel, and Melachim Alef) structure their narratives around the affairs of chieftains and royals, Melachim Bet, though certainly not neglecting these groups, affords significant and incommensurate attention to a vast cross-section of society’s lower classes: servants, widows, the poor, and the general masses.
Thus, for instance, the hero of the Sefer’s former half is not a monarch or even a military general. Rather, he is a populist miracle-worker, Elisha, who oversees a nomadic and indigent band of prophets frequently derided and even persecuted by the country’s ruling elite. This Elisha brings relief to the townsfolk of Yericho by removing disease from their waters (II Kings 2), and to his own disciples by ridding their food of a similar plague (II Kings 4). He provides oil for an impoverished widow (ibid). He blesses a barren villager with a son, revives that son upon his untimely death (possibly from overwork?) (ibid), and helps the family avoid impending famine (II Kings 8). He retrieves a sunken axe-head on behalf of a distressed debtor (II Kings 6). He resurrects the corpse of a man whose pallbearers had hastily abandoned him at the outbreak of an unexpected enemy raid (II Kings 13). Through and through, Elisha’s focus is fixed upon the fringes—upon those whom others scorn, reject, ignore or perhaps merely tolerate, but whom Elisha embraces with open arms.
Even the lepers flock to Elisha. One specific leper whom Elisha cures is Naaman (II Kings 5)—a native of the very same Aram which besieges Shomron in this week’s Haftarah. Indeed, Naaman’s recovery provides the prologue for this week’s Haftarah, and serves itself as the Haftarah for Parshas Tazria, the former of this week’s two Parshahs. And though the implications of Naaman’s ordeal prove international in scope, the ones principally responsible for directing its drama are neither kings nor warriors. They are, as a rule, servants. Thus, it is a captive Israelite maidservant who proposes that Naaman seek the aid of Elisha (ibid. 5:2ff), and an Aramean servant who convinces his king to wage war on Elisha shortly thereafter (ibid. 6:12ff)—neither of them quite unlike the servant in our own Haftarah, by the way, who persuades the king against dismissing the report of the metzorim (ibid. 7:12-13).
Moreover, Naaman himself is a servant of the king’s: in his own words, it is his “hands” whom the Aramean king “leans” upon (נשען על ידי) while praying to his gods (ibid. 5:18). A similar role, incidentally, belongs to the villain of our episode: the skeptic who denies Elisha’s claim that Shomron shall be saved also happens to be the servant upon whose “hands” the king of Israel “lean” (נשען על ידו) (ibid. 7:2, 17). Remarkably, this phrase—נשען על יד—appears nowhere else in Tanach. Yet its centrality in this context is most appropriate, for it reflects our story’s (and our Sefer’s) central theme: At this particular juncture in Jewish history, national events are orchestrated not only by the hands of the kings, but, increasingly, by all those members of the “supporting” cast upon whose hands they “lean.”
With the death of Elisha, near the center of the Sefer, this becomes even truer. Literarily, one marker of the socioeconomic transition underway is the growing prevalence of the term “עם הארץ” within the text. This demographic designation is familiar to us from Chazal as referring to the nation’s uneducated masses; whether or not it carries precisely that coloration in Sefer Melachim, the outsized influence which the “עם הארץ” wield over the Sefer’s latter half clearly signal a shift of power towards the common folk.[i] These so-called “people of the land” play an instrumental role in Yehoash’s successful efforts to wrest the throne from the murderous Atalaiah (II Kings 11:14, 18-20). They appoint a sixteen year old Azariah king over Yehudah following the death of his father (ibid. 14:21—lit. “עם יהודה”), and form the political base for Azariah’s son, Yotam, after Azariah is stricken with tzaraat (ibid. 15:5). They execute the assassins of Amon (ibid. 21:24), and anoint his son, Yoshiyahu, in his stead (ibid). They then crown his son, Yehoachaz, after Pharaoh kills Yoshiyahu in battle (ibid. 23:30), and bear the brunt of economic sanctions imposed by Egypt once it replaces this Yehoachaz with a different son of Yoshiyahu’s (ibid. 35). Yet they are the only ones who remain after the next two kings, Yehoyachin and Zidkiyahu, are deposed, and sent into exile along with the nation’s elites: “And [Nebuchadnezzar] exiled all Jerusalem and all the officers and all the mighty warriors, ten thousand exiles, and all the craftsmen and the sentries of the gates; no one remained except the poorest of the people of the land [דלת עם הארץ]” (ibid. 24:14); “And Nebuzaradan the chief executioner exiled the remnant of the people who remained in the city… but from poorest of the land [דלת הארץ], he left some to serve as vine-dressers and farmers” (ibid. 25:11).
Sefer Melachim closes on this note of tragedy. Yet it is not (to appropriate Lloyd’s phrase) “the tragedy of the commons;” if anything, the commoners emerge from this Sefer as the nation’s best hope for redemptive triumph. Both in the days of Gedaliah (see Jer. 40:7), and during the era of Ezra and Nechemiah, the “remnant of Zion” draws its numbers disproportionately from the lower classes. In the end, then, it is not the powerful or the privileged or the prestigious who rebuild the Jewish nation. Instead, survival is ensured, and salvation won, by those whose ties to their people, its homeland and its God cut deeper than any of these superficial correlates of authority.
And, coming full circle, it is in this context that the meaning of our Haftarah must be assessed. “History,” wrote Carlyle, “is the story of great men”—as indeed it is, for much of Tanach. But, heralding a period in which Israel’s monarchy begins to flounder morally, spiritually, and politically, our Haftarah reminds us that history is not only the story of those men and women whose greatness is conferred by dint of position or pedigree. It is equally, perhaps primarily, the story of the rank and file, the proles and even the pariahs, whose greatness lies in their everyday acts of caring, compassion, curiosity and courage. Ultimately, this is the greatness that sustains a nation, and it is equally available for all of its members to claim—from its leaders to its lepers.
[i] To be sure, the עם הארץ probably did enjoy some measure of political status; by all accounts, though, they would have wielded less power or prestige than did the kings and chieftains who traditionally comprise the focus of Nevi’im Rishonim. For more on this topic, see S. Talmon, “The Judean ‘Am-ha’aretz in Historical Perspective,” and E. W. Nicholson, “The Meaning of the Expression עם הארץ in the OT.”