Melakhim Bet Chapter 5
Naaman is the highly acclaimed general of Aram but suffers from tzaraat, often translated as “leprosy”. In one of his successful campaigns against Israel, he captured a young maiden who attends to his wife. The maiden suggests that Naaman seek out the prophet in Israel who can cure his disease. The King of Aram sends a message to the King of Israel directing him to arrange that Naaman, who is en route to Israel bearing gifts of precious metals and clothing, will be healed of his tzaraat.
The King of Israel, realizing that he is not capable of fulfilling the demand of the King of Aram, interprets it as an attempt to seek a pretext for war. He tears his garments as a sign of mourning, anticipating the worst. Elisha is apprised of the situation and sends word to the King of Israel not to worry. Elisha encourages the King to have Naaman come to him for healing. Naaman arrives with a large entourage and chariot and stations himself outside the home of Elisha. Elisha has his messenger convey instructions to Naaman: the general is to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times, and he will be cured.
Naaman is very upset, disappointed that the prophet did not appear in person and perform some magical ritual. If all that is necessary is a bath in the river, Damascus has far superior bodies of water for that purpose than Israel! However, his attendant prevails upon him to at least try out the recommendation of Elisha; after all, had he told him to do something more difficult and mysterious, he would have complied, and it can’t hurt to simply bathe in the river a little. Naaman follows the instructions of Elisha and the health of his skin is immediately restored.
Naaman returns to the home of Elisha and stands before the prophet face to face. He acknowledges that Hashem, God of Israel, is the only true God, and urges Elisha to accept his gifts of tribute. Elisha adamantly refuses. Naaman takes some earth from the land of Israel in order to carry home with him and to build there an altar to Hashem for worship.He also asks Elisha to intercede on his behalf for forgiveness from the Almighty. Although Naaman himself will no longer serve any other gods, he occasionally must accompany his master into the idolatrous temple. His master leans upon him and so, when he bows down to his god, Naaman must prostrate himself as well. Elisha assures Naaman that this is accepted in the eyes of God.
Our Sages learn an important law from this incident: unlike a Jew who must die before bowing to a graven image even under duress, a gentile who believes in God is not obligated to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and may feign worship of an idol to escape death.
Gehazi, Elisha’s attendant, witnesses the exchange between Elisha and Naaman and is upset that this “Aramean” left without paying the prophet anything. He runs after Naaman and is greeted with great deference. Gehazi lies and tells Naaman that his master, Elisha, was just approached by two of the disciples of the prophets who are in dire straits and in need of one talent of silver and two changes of clothing. Naaman generously gives Gehazi two talents of silver and the clothing he requested, and Naaman and his men escort Gehazi back to his home where they are deposited for “safe keeping”.
When Gehazi returns to Elisha, he is questioned about his absence and denies having left the area. Elisha, of course, knows where Gehazi has been and rebukes him for taking advantage of Naaman for material gain. He curses Gehazi who contracts the very disease of tzaraat with which Naaman had been afflicted.
This episode is nearly the opposite of the opening chapter of Melakhim Bet. There, a seriously ill King Ahazya dispatched messengers to Eqron to consult with a foreign god about his prognosis. This was a potentially terrible desecration of Hashem’s name, as it implied that there was no deity in Israel worthy of consulting, and it was therefore intercepted by Eliyahu. Here, a foreign dignitary who is actually in a position of dominance vis a vis the Jewish people (the King of Israel is afraid of him and his maidservant is a Jewish girl he captured in battle) nonetheless leaves his country to seek advice and healing from the One God of Israel. This results in a spectacular sanctification of God’s name on multiple levels.
The orientation of the Arameans to the office of the prophet reflects pagan culture. First, they assume the prophet works for the king and therefore reach out to the monarch in order to access the prophet’s services. Second, Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home in full regalia and with a company of officers, placing himself in the position of superiority relative to the man of God. Third, Naaman expects Elisha to be a magician or miracle-worker who will enact some elaborate ritual of hocus-pocus to heal him. Finally, Naaman assumes that Elisha will expect to be compensated handsomely for his efforts and prepares accordingly.
Each of these preconceived notions is negated in the story. The prophet, a servant of God, is neither employed by nor beholden to any human king. As long as Naaman sits regally atop his chariot, Elisha declines to stand before him and sends a messenger instead. The instructions Elisha offers are deceptively simple because he wants to teach Naaman that humbly conforming to the will of God is the only path to recovery. No ritual, however impressive, can force Hashem to respond to our demands. Lastly, Elisha attributes the miracle to the Almighty and not to himself, adamantly refusing to accept any material reward for the assistance he has offered.
All of these “corrections” to the perspective of Naaman draw him closer to a true understanding and recognition of Hashem Who is absolute and transcendent, receives no benefit from His creatures and cannot be magically manipulated. Naaman has clearly been transformed by this experience and adopts a far more modest and self-effacing attitude toward Elisha after he is cured.
This helps us to appreciate why Gehazi’s sin was so terrible. Aside from lying and misrepresenting the prophet, Gehazi detracted from the sanctification of Hashem’s name for his own personal gain. He gave the impression that, at the end of the day, Elisha did want to “cash in” on his prophetic services, and was perhaps just being gracious in allowing Naaman to leave without paying. Gehazi was motivated here not only by a desire for material wealth but also by his disdain for Naaman, whom he terms “this Aramean”. He saw Naaman as the political foe of Israel and therefore someone who should not be granted any favors.
An opportunist by nature, Gehazi did not see the intrinsic value in sanctifying Hashem’s name before a fellow human being, let alone a great leader of a gentile nation; he merely saw the property of an enemy of Israel that would go to better use in the hands of a Jew. This arrogant perspective earned him the curse of tzaraat. Tzaraat is a divine punishment meted out to arrogant people who attempt to aggrandize and promote themselves at the expense of others. Since such an individual thrives on his ability to interact with and take advantage of others, isolating him from society robs him of his power and forces him to engage in meaningful reflection and repentance.
From the fact that Elisha maintained such an intimate relationship with him, we can infer that Gehazi must have been an impressive person, highly intelligent and talented. The two seem to have been inseparable and to have shared a level of closeness similar to the one Elisha himself enjoyed with his master, Eliyahu. Undoubtedly, Elisha had high hopes for Gehazi and expected him to work on and overcome the character flaws that held him back in his development. Consistent with his kind and patient disposition, Elisha was willing to allow Gehazi plenty of time to improve himself in his areas of weakness, and Gehazi was the beneficiary of the remarkable opportunity to develop a deep and edifying relationship with his illustrious teacher.
However, Gehazi instead chose to use his position as Elisha’s attendant as a source of political clout, distancing others from the “inner circle” of the prophet and, in the case of Naaman, even undermining the holy efforts of Elisha when doing so served his own personal ambitions. He abused his relationship with Elisha as well as his standing in the eyes of others. For all of these reasons, suffering from tzaraat, which excluded him from social interaction indefinitely, was a fitting consequence.