A Story of Barley Bread

The Torah portion of Tazria is almost entirely preoccupied with the laws of tzaraat, the biblical ailment appearing either on the skin of a person, on his clothing or on his home. Reflecting this, the major portion of the haftarah is the story of Naaman, a gentile aristocrat who was cured of his tzaraat by the prophet Elisha.

Before physically parting from his teacher Elijah, Elisha boldly requested that he be granted “a double portion of spirit” than that of his teacher.1 In the end, the request was granted. To demonstrate this, Scripture enumerates twice as many miracles performed by Elisha than by Elijah.

The haftarah begins with one of these miracles. In Elisha’s times, a seven-year drought raged throughout the land of Israel. As a prophet and sage, Elisha had hundreds of students who studied at his feet. Food was altogether scarce, and these students often ended up going hungry.

One day a man appeared at Elisha’s home, bringing with him twenty loaves of barley bread plus some fresh kernels. The loaves and kernels were from the new harvest of that year. In fact, the verse in its description uses the term bikkurim, the same term that describes the “first fruits” brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and given to the kohanim (priests). Now, this gift was not meant to be actual bikkurim: for one, this was outside of the Temple; second, it is uncertain whether Elisha was a kohen. The verse nevertheless uses this term, to teach us that “whoever brings a gift to a Torah scholar is as if he had brought the bikkurim offering.”2

Upon receiving the gift, Elisha instructed that the provisions be given to the students sitting in front of him. The trouble was that twenty loaves could hardly go around the numerous students in Elisha’s care.3 But the prophet nevertheless instructed his servant to ignore this concern, “for thus said G‑d: Eat and leave over.” Sure enough, there was more than enough for everyone.

The Jordan River
The Jordan River

The Changed General

Elisha lived during the reign of Jehoram, son of Ahab, king of Israel. One of the neighboring nations to Israel was Aram (today Syria). Aram would routinely attack and terrorize Israel, and in a recent war had been responsible for the death of Jehoram’s father, Ahab.

The commander of the the Aramean army was a man named Naaman. The verse tells us that he was “eminent” and “well honored” in his home country, for “through him G‑d had granted victory to Aram.” Our sages tell us that it was none other than Naaman who had—unknowingly—managed to fatally wound Ahab in war.4 Since then, Naaman was held in high esteem by the king and his people.

At some point Naaman was afflicted with tzaraat. Now, tzaraat was not just another type of skin condition; it was an ailment that struck a person due to moral or spiritual misconduct. According to one midrashic opinion, Naaman’s excessive arrogance and pride brought about his affliction. This personality of Naaman’s becomes quite evident in many of the verses that follow.5

As it happened, the wife of the ailing general had a Jewish servant girl. She had been captured by an Aramean gang in one of their raids on an Israelite community. Seeing the distress of her master, the girl assured her mistress that if her husband would pay a visit to the prophet in Samaria, he would certainly be cured from his condition.

Naaman had nothing to lose. He approached the king of Aram and told him what the girl had said. The latter promptly wrote a letter to the king of Israel, instructing him to ensure that Naaman be cured of his tzaraat. Naaman made his way to Israel with a large entourage and a lavish gift for the prophet.

As it turns out, what seems to have been common knowledge to the young Israelite girl did not seem obvious at all to the king. Upon receiving the letter, Jehoram tore his clothes in anguish. “Am I G‑d,” he exclaimed, “that this person sends me instructions to heal a man of tzaraat!?” He was sure that the king of Aram was looking for an excuse to attack Israel once again.

The commentaries explain that Jehoram, like his father, was entirely submerged in the popular pagan culture of the time. Either he did not believe in, or he had simply never heard of, the prophet of G‑d who was so active in his kingdom. Others want to say that although the king had heard of Elisha, he was too embarrassed to confront him, due to his shameful conduct.6 Hearing of the king’s distress, Elisha sent a message to the king urging him to send Naaman his way: “Let him come to me now, and he will realize that there is a prophet in Israel!”

Naaman rode to the home of Elisha and stood at the doorway. Elisha did not even entertain him face to face. Instead he sent out a messenger, conveying his advice that the general should immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River and with this be healed.

Naama was incensed. What kind of prophet was this? The arrogant general was certain that the prophet would give him due honor, come out to greet him, and with a prayer and a wave of his hand heal him of his tzaraat. Instead, this prophet—without even the courtesy of seeing him in person—sends him to bathe in the local river… “If bathing in a river is my cure,” the general fumed, “are not… the rivers of Damascus better than any water in Israel?!” Bathing in these rivers, or any water, had done nothing for him thus far.

(In fact, as explained above, Naaman’s tzaraat had come to him precisely because of his arrogance. Elisha understood this and took the necessary measures to deflate the ego of this proud general. Indeed we are also told that the Hebrew word טבילה (tevilah), dipping (in a mikvah), contains the same letters that spell הביטל (HaBittul)—translated as “selflessness,” “abnegation” or “humility.” One of the primary ideas behind immersion in a mikvah is that it induces a sense of negation of one’s ego.)

Choosing their words carefully, the members of Naaman’s retinue tried convincing him to at least try. “My father,” they addressed him, “had the prophet told you to do a difficult thing, would you not have done it?” In other words, they were saying, if what the prophet had told you had made sense to you, then you would not have been deterred even if it was a difficult thing to do. In this case, the prophet gave such a simple instruction; why brashly dismiss it?

Hearing these words, Naaman capitulated. Swallowing his pride, he went and immersed himself in the Jordan, and was cured on the spot. He immediately returned to Elisha, who this time met him in person. Naaman began by solemnly proclaiming his belief in the G‑d of Israel, and asked that Elisha accept the gift he brought with him. Elisha flatly refused, even after the general urged him to accept.

Seeing that Elisha was firm in his decision, the general turned to his other subject of concern—his newly affirmed faith in G‑d. Now that he resolved to sacrifice only to the one G‑d, Naaman requested that he be given permission to take some of the earth of Israel7 to construct an altar for this purpose. Whether this was rooted in superstition or knowledge, the fact remains that such a request had much validity from a Torah point of view: the very earth of the land of Israel possesses a special sanctity, and is conducive only to the exclusive service of the Almighty.

In addition, Naaman asked for pardon from G‑d for an act of ostensible idolatry that he would be forced to perform in the future. As a subordinate to the idol-worshipping king of Aram, Naaman would have to accompany his master to pagan temples, and the king would lean on his arm when prostrating himself before the deity. Naaman himself would then have to give the impression that he was bowing to the idol too. For this, Naaman was asking forgiveness in advance.

After hearing him out, the prophet bid the general farewell. “Go in peace!” said Elisha, as he escorted his guest some way. Elisha’s silence regarding any of Naaman’s requests remains unclear. When considering the circumstances, however, it may be assumed that silence and ambiguity were the best response Elisha could have given after all…