Mightier Than a Warrior: Commentary on Parashat Tazri’a 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


I’m not normally a praying man, but, if you’re up there, please save me, Superman. – Homer Simpson*


No matter how deeply attuned we may feel to our Jewish practice, beliefs, or identity—Parashat Tazri’a notoriously has turned many Jews away from connecting with this text that Jews all over the world will read this Shabbat. In a video on the torah portion produced by BimBam, Dr. Jennifer Traig claims that “it’s possible that Tazri’a is the grossest and weirdest parashah in the whole Torah.” Tazri’a focuses on the steps a mother must take to become ritually pure after childbirth (Leviticus 12:1–8) and the conditions under which a priest may declare pure or impure certain clothes and people with a broad range of skin ailments and issues related to hairiness and baldness (13:1–59).

Contemporary Jewish living necessitates living a ritually impure life. Jerusalem no longer houses a Temple that hosts purification rituals. Instead, each of us regularly comes into close contact with ritually impure objects and people (including anything touched by the body of a deceased individual, anything touched by a person who is menstruating, and people who have had seminal emissions). Many sacred acts—including caring for the dead and reproduction—depend on somebody becoming ritually impure. Though the ritual bath of a mikveh (מִקְוֶה) may grant us ritual purity, the Jewish people never can and never should fully escape this ancient sense of impurity.

The Jewish people have long suspected that Parashat Tazri’a deals with subject matters that are far from our heart. For over 18 centuries, Jews have adopted a practice of appending special themed Torah and Haftarah readings to almost every Shabbat between the month when Purim arrives until the Shabbat preceding Passover (Mishnah, Megillah 3:4). For approximately as long, Jews have tried to read the entire Torah over the course of a year. Given the oddities of a Jewish calendar that tries to match up the moon’s orbits and the sun’s orbits, shorter years on the Jewish calendar have demanded that Jews read two Torah portions together on certain weeks. On this Shabbat in this Jewish leap year of 5784, Jews across the world will encounter something even rarer than a solar eclipse: the reading of Parashat Tazri’a with no other Torah portion attached to it. This year, we meet Parashat Tazri’a head-on with no distractions from the Torah itself—no added readings—but, since the medieval era, the rabbis have been unable to bear the thought of reading Tazri’a alone. They had the wisdom to assign to this Shabbat a Haftarah reading where we meet an unlikely underdog whose spiritual journey crosses over with our Israelite ancestors.

The rare communal Haftarah reading of II Kings 4:42–5:19 turns our attention away from questions of which maladies are pure or impure and accepts as fact that the Aramean general Na’aman needed medical attention for his skin condition (II Kings 5:1 and 5:3). Na’aman appears to have known nobody in all of Aram who could cure his tzara’at (צָרַעַת, the most frequently biblically attested skin condition, sometimes translated as “leprosy”). Fortunately for Na’aman, after his army captured “נַעֲרָ֣ה קְטַנָּ֑ה” (na’arah ketannah, “a small young woman”) whom they had found in the Land of Israel, this unnamed woman “וַתְּהִ֕י לִפְנֵ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת נַעֲמָֽן” (vattehi lifney eshet na’aman, “became a servant to the wife of Na’aman”) (5:2). These two unnamed women evidently got to talking about Na’aman’s epidermal discomfort, and the Israelite woman realized that one Israelite man may yet have a cure. She suggested that “הַנָּבִ֖יא אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשֹׁמְר֑וֹן” (hannavi asher beShomeron, “the prophet in Samaria”) may be equipped to restore Na’aman to his pre-tzara’at self (Kings 5:3).

After Na’aman’s regal supervisor caught wind of this Israelite miracle-worker (II Kings 5:4), the King of Aram prepared a letter to declare his interest in assisting Na’aman with the medical talents of this famed Israelite (5:5–6). Upon the resolution of a bureaucratic scuffle in the Israelite kingdom (5:7–8), Na’aman finally booked an appointment with the miracle man himself, the prophet Elisha (5:7–9). Elisha gave that military leader some orders, beginning with prescribing seven baths in the Jordan River (5:10). Receiving these instructions, however, angered Na’aman (5:12). This Aramean had hoped that a medicine man would wave his hand over the infection while reciting God’s name and the whole thing would be a done deal (5:11). If all it had been about was a case of washing up properly, Na’aman could have bathed in the rivers of Damascus, he figured (5:12). Even amidst Na’aman’s grumbling (5:11–12), however, we read a critical but subtle transformation that Elisha must have inspired within Na’aman.

Na’aman, a man of war, was not scrupulous to protect the sanctity of life; he did not mind shedding blood. In fact, the 19th century Ukrainian Rabbi Me’ir Leibush ben Yechi’el Mikhl Wisser—also known by the acronymic name of his biblical commentary, MaLBYM (מלבי״ם)—figured, like many rabbis before him,


.שלא היתה צרעת טבעי בסבת איזה הפסד בגוף רק עונשיי. וחכמינו זכרונם לברכה אמרו שנענש על שארם יצאו גדודים וישבו מארץ ישראל נערה קטנה, שהיה בפקודת נעמן

that tzara’at was not naturally caused by some corporeal deficiency; rather, it was [divinely] punitive. And our sages—whose memories shall be for a blessing—said that that [general, Na’aman] was punished because [the notion that] “Aram emerged in bands and took captive from the land of Israel a small woman” (II Kings 5:2) was at the command of Na’aman. (MaLBYM on II Kings 5:1.)


The idea that blood was holy—that fluids could transmit impurity—was not merely foreign to someone outside the Israelite camp, but it was foreign to someone who could not value life. Na’aman’s bloodthirst had never reeked of moral impurity to the general. He did not know the Book of Leviticus, which preserves Parashat Tazri’a and many laws that, rightly or wrongly, warned Israelites to distance themselves from bodily fluids, disfigurements, or other phenomena that made ancient humans worry that death could be near.

In a single prescription, nonetheless, Elisha changed Na’aman. After Elisha described the aftereffects of seven baths in the Jordan, Elisha explained that, of course, “וְיָשֹׁ֧ב בְּשָׂרְךָ֛ לְךָ֖” (veyashov besarekha lekha, “then, your flesh will return to you”). Finally and most importantly though, Elisha concluded by instructing Na’aman something nobody had ever before commanded this military leader: “וּטְהָֽר” (ut’har, “then, become pure”) (5:10). Even as Na’aman complained that Damascus had better bodies of water than the Land of Israel (II Kings 5:12), Na’aman concluded that he could have bathed in the diaspora and—in his words—“וְטָהָ֑רְתִּי” (vetaharti, “then I could become pure”) (5:12). Never before though had Na’aman expressed his own concern with purity.

The story has a relatively happy ending. Despite his initial misgivings, Na’aman eventually dunked in the Jordan and—in some poetic justice (or in some just poetry) for the small young woman he stole from the Land of Israel—“וַיָּ֣שׇׁב בְּשָׂר֗וֹ כִּבְשַׂ֛ר נַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן וַיִּטְהָֽר׃” (“his flesh returned to being like the flesh of a small young man, and he became pure”) (5:14). Na’aman, in a sign of gratitude and accepting the ideas of a religion once foreign to him, devoted his exclusive loyalty to the God of the Israelites and to give some gifts of appreciation to Elisha (5:15–18). Elisha, not deeply concerned with material goods, hesitated to accept Na’aman’s offer but did offer some kind words of closure to the Aramean: “לֵ֣ךְ לְשָׁל֑וֹם” (lekh leshalom, “Go towards peace”) (5:19).

In attaching the story of Na’aman’s tzara’at to Parashat Tazri’a, medieval sages protected us from the one Torah portion most likely to delude us of the notion that the Torah anthologizes ancient lessons that impart contemporary values. The story of Na’aman highlights a stranger discovering that, somewhere out there, there may be a spiritual home far from the world heretofore known. The world is bigger and holier than our eyes can see. Beneath our skin—and even within our skin—we are greater than the body counts of primal warfare, and we are spiritual beings who experience more than the pain of bodily flaws. Purities and impurities do not tell the whole story either of course. Though rabbis of old may have once connected tzara’at or other malaises with divine retribution, our sages have always known that impurity and purity are metaphysical concerns, and they accepted a cosmos filled with mystery. Not everything bad was connected to an immoral act (as taught by the rabbinic acceptance of yissurin shel ahavah, “pains amidst [those who receive God’s] love,” as articulated in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a). So too, not everything fortunate in the world has emerged amidst the altruistic.

Na’aman did not read Parashat Tazri’a, but he did learn that there is far more to being human than being heroic or being conquered—more than being sick or being well. There is a certain subset of human flaws, Na’aman learned, that no doctor could ever heal. Purity and impurity is no way to judge all that stands before us, but living life with an awareness of the spectrum between the pure and the impure opens us to the possibility that we cannot understand it all, even when we find sacred answers.



*From The Simpsons, “Lost Our Lisa” (season 9, episode 4), directed by Pete Michels, written by Brian Scully (first aired May 10, 1998).




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