Friday, April 12, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–M’tzora 5768–Human Nature

Human nature is a funny thing. We are awash in conflicting emotions, wants, desires, needs.We never really know how we might behave in a particular situation until we're in the middle of it.

Caught in the siege of Samaria, 4 lepers, living outside the city gates, yet still dependent on the city in many ways, decide it might be safer to take their chances defecting to the enemy camp. Oddly enough, they seem to believe that the option of going into the city is open to them. This puzzles me, somewhat. Surely, those in a ritually impure state would not be allowed in the city? Was the time when they were eligible for the ritual purification approaching? Did they know they could count on the good and generous nature, or perhaps compassion of the Israelites living there? Perhaps they thought they could bribe their way in? Whatever the case, they decide that staying either outside the city or within the city is certain death from the siege and subsequent famine. They decide to chance going to the enemy camp - they had nothing to lose by this gambit.

They come to the enemy camp and discover it is abandoned, with much of value left behind. Thrilled with their good fortune, they proceed to start carting off and burying all the silver, gold and clothing they can find. Yet soon, overcome, apparently, by guilt, they determine it is wrong of them to line their own pickets and not inform those in the city that their enemies have fled. So they go back to the city, and, standing outside the walls, shout the good news to the gatekeepers, who then tell the King and his flunkies.
The King suspects a trick. The enemy Arameans have left their camp and are hiding, waiting to ambush them. (Give the King credit, as he doesn't appear to doubt the word of the lepers, he just thinks they were fooled by the enemy trick. But the text sort of leaves that up to the reader to decide.)

Look, already, at how many differing sides of human nature we have encountered. Fear. Greed. Loyalty. Mistrust. Fatalism. All of them in conflict with each other.

Once it was ascertained that the enemy army had indeed fled, the people of the city proceeded to plunder the enemy camp. Guess you can;t blame them, although I'm not so sure that it was food they were plundering. Even int he midst of their hunger, avarice may have been dominant.

Whatever the case, the end of the siege brings good fortune to the city - just as predicted by the Prophet Elisha. (Elisha's prophecies occur in material not included in the haftarah.) It also bring a clever little comeuppance. An aide to the King had doubted the prophet Elisha's claim that within the next day, flour and barley would be selling for a reasonable price, as opposed to the siege-induced markups. The aide openly doubted that even G"d could make such a thing come to pass. In a lovely ironic twist, the aide is appointed commander of the city gate, and he is trampled to death by the crowd of townspeople rushing out to acquire the flour and barley for the predicted low price-an event the prophet had predicted as well, by telling the aide that he would see the prophecy of the lower price with his own eyes, but he would never eat of it. Ah, poetic justice.

Everything about this whole story just screams "story." It is well-crafted literature full of poignant lessons. It plays on our own emotions.Why choose lepers as those who discover that the enemy have fled? Why show the lepers as both fatalistic, opportunistic, greedy, and yet, strangely loyal? And that bit of poetic justice for the aide. It seems a little too perfect, too pat. Surely the reader is going to look at the text and think "this just has to be a story, and not reality."

Which of the two moral teachings are the core of the story-the "sort of "t'shuva of the lepers, or the foolishness of the aide in doubting G"d? Or are both equally important?

Eight years ago, I wrote a musing entitled "Even Lepers Bring Good News" which focused on that aspect of this haftarah-that even these lepers, forced to be apart from the community for their impurities, nevertheless still feel enough a part of the community to overcome their greed.  Like those lepers, many of us can, at times, feel disconnected from our communities, from the greater Jewish community, and filled with spiritual and emotional "leprosy." I know that I sometimes feel this way. Yet, underneath it all, there is still that tug, that connection. Not only would I like to think of myself as one who, faced with the same situation as those lepers, do the right thing - I have the evidence of my own behaviors to confirm that this is how I act in those sorts of circumstances. I suppose I should feel good about that.

But then there's that other question. If a prophet told me that G"d would bring something about, would I accept it on faith, or roll my eyes and sarcastically dismiss the idea? More than anything, this is a source of much inner turmoil. Does G"d, or my understanding of what G"d is or might be, still take an active role in this universe? Did G"d ever do so?
While I've not had the misfortune to be trampled to death like the doubting aide, I've lived through situations where the outcome certainly wasn't the one I expected, and I couldn't really attribute it to some rational, scientific explanation. Yet I still doubt G"d's active (and even passive) role in the universe. Even amidst all the miracles I observe daily - flowering nature, birth, majestic scenes of tectonic and volcanic action - I still doubt.

I need, perhaps, to take to heart what Heschel said, that "wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge."  I'm going to spend this Shabbat trying to change my doubt into wonder. Wish me luck.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester