The Background

The haftarah for the portion of Metzora (or Tazria-Metzora, when read together) is taken from a series of stories told in the book of Kings about the prophet Elisha. In his last request of his teacher, Elijah the prophet, Elisha boldly asked to be granted “double the spirit” of his teacher. This was indeed granted to him, and scripture conveys this by recounting twice as many miracles being performed by Elisha as by Elijah. The story of this haftarah is one of those miracles.

The days were those of Jehoram, king of Israel, the son of King Ahab. Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram, was at war with Israel and had laid siege on Samaria. The city, which had already been suffering from a famine, was now stricken with total hunger. The situation was so dire that people began consuming things which would usually never pass as edible. It all reached a peak when one day, while he was passing by a certain street, Jehoram heard a woman calling for his help. Assuming that she was asking him for food, he replied that he was sorry, but she would have to look elsewhere. What turned out to actually be her request horrified the king to the core. In the rage of the famine, she had made a deal with another woman that on one day they would both eat her own son, and on the next day they would consume the son of the other woman. She had kept her part of the deal, but the other woman had now hidden her dead child and not kept her part of the deal…

Upon hearing this, the king tore his clothes in anguish. In his fury and horror, he swore to kill the prophet Elisha, who had become known far and wide as a prophet of G‑d, and who surely could have done something about this terrible situation: as he evidently had not done so, Jehoram considered him deserving of death. The king sent a messenger with instructions to kill Elisha on sight, and followed the messenger as he made his way to the home of Elisha. The messenger, however, had second thoughts about this. He confronted the king just as he was about to enter Elisha’s home. “If the hunger has come from G‑d,” the messenger reasoned, “what kind of hope could we expect now if we kill His prophet?” In the end the king relented.

Seeing that the king and his messenger were going to spare him, Elisha proceeded to relate G‑d’s word to the king that in fact the famine was about to abruptly end: “So has the L‑rd said: ‘At this time tomorrow, a se’ah1 of fine flour will sell for a shekel, and two se’ahs of barley will sell for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.’” The king’s close aide, who was there with his master, could not contain himself, and exclaimed in disbelief: “How is this possible?! Even if G‑d caused the flour and barley to rain from the heavens, they could never become so cheap!” In response, Elisha told the him that he would indeed see the prophecy come true, but would not live long enough to enjoy it.

The Story

It is at this point in the story that our haftarah begins. The obvious connection of the haftarah to the Torah reading is in the opening sentence. The Parshah (or both Parshiot when Tazria and Metzora are joined) deals with the laws of tzaraat, the biblical malady that would come upon either a home, clothes or one’s own skin. The haftarah begins with the scene of four metzora’im (individuals suffering from tzaraat) sitting at the city gates. The Torah instructs that a metzora must live in the “outskirts of the camp” until his tzaraat is cured, and it was for this reason that they were sitting at the city gate.

The Talmud2 identifies these four metzora’im as Gehazi and his three sons. Gehazi was the servant of Elisha, and had been stricken by tzaraat as a result of a previous incident. An earlier episode3 (most of which is read as the haftarah of the portion of Tazria, when that portion is read alone) relates how Elisha cured Naaman, the general of Aram, from his condition of tzaraat. Elisha had refused to take any gift from Naaman in appreciation for the miracle. After Naaman had gone on his way, Gehazi seized the opportunity and ran after the general. Pretending to speak on behalf of his master, Gehazi asked Naaman for some silver and clothes for two “disciples of the prophets” who had just come to Elisha. Naaman willingly obliged. Elisha, who knew prophetically about the actions of his servant, told him that as punishment, the tzaraat that was lifted from Naaman would come to both Gehazi and his children, who collaborated with him on this. Gehazi and his three sons remained metzora’im for the rest of their lives.

At any rate, these four unfortunate men were in no less in a predicament than their brethren in the city. In the agony of hunger, they decided that it was better to surrender themselves to the Aramean soldiers, where they stood at least a chance of survival, than to die a certain death of hunger. Putting plan into action, they approached the enemy camp towards the evening (of the same day as Elisha’s prophecy). To their astonishment, they found no one there. G‑d had performed a miracle: the Arameans suddenly heard sounds that seemed like the approach of an immense army—chariots, horses and all—coming towards them. Gripped with fear, they made an immediate flight, assuming that the Israelites had been able to hire some powerful army in the region to come to their aid.

The Midrash4 tells us that the sound the Arameans heard came as a continuation of another miracle many centuries earlier—the plague of hail that came upon Egypt as one of the ten plagues before the Exodus. It was brought to an end when Moses spread out his hands in prayer and asked G‑d to stop the thunder and hail. The verse states that at that moment “the thunder and hail ceased, and the rain did not reach the earth.”5 The Midrash says, then, that G‑d held back the thunder and hail in midair, pausing them for several hundred years. Now G‑d finally let them loose, creating a thunderous noise that sounded like a mighty army.

Running for their lives, the Arameans left most of their possessions behind, and dropped more on the way to lighten their burden. The four men went into one of the tents, ate their fill and took treasures for themselves. They continued on to a second tent and did the same. After a while, they said to one another, “Why, it would be wrong to wait until the morning to let the king know about the news. Let us tell him now.” They went to the guard at the gate, told him of the exciting news and urged him to report it to the palace. At first the king feared it was an ambush. An advisor suggested that some riders should be dispatched with the last remaining horses to examine the situation. “We have nothing to lose,” the advisor said; “assuming they do fall into an enemy trap, their inevitable fate in the city will be no better.” The riders returned and confirmed the report to be true: the entire road was full of baggage that the enemy had dropped in their flight. Immediately, the gates of the city were hurled open, as the people stampeded towards to empty army camp. Elisha’s prophecy was accurately fulfilled, as food suddenly became so abundant that prices dropped to a shekel for a se’ah of flour and a shekel for two se’ah of barley.

The king had appointed his aide—the same one from earlier in the story—to maintain order at the city gate and make sure that the valuables found in the camp would reach the royal palace. In the rush and desperation of the people, the aide was trampled to death, thus accurately fulfilling the words of the prophet to him.