Parshah Tazria-Metzora: Remembering Elisha

Tazria-Metzora

As if to counteract the parsha/Torah portion’s dry, legal listings of purity, impurity, and whatever malady was known as “leprosy” in ancient times (it could include any skin ailment, from a bad rash through psoriasis, including, ironically, mold on the walls of a dwelling, all the way to actual leprosy, which we now call Hansen’s Disease), the haftorah for this Shabbat (2 Kings 7:3-20) gives us a little-known episode from the Book of Kings which took place around 892-832 BCE, in the days of Elisha’s prophecy: the miraculous rout of the Aramean King Ben-Hadad, who flees before the might of God, lifting his siege of Samaria. The people in the Israelite city are starving from the siege, and eating whatever offal they can acquire. Four lepers—we are not told what skin disease they suffer from—are sitting by the city gates, ostracized by their fellow citizens; amazingly, they are first to learn of the enemy’s retreat, as the text of the haftorah bears out, teaching us that even the lowliest members of society are to be valued, not shunned.

I treasure this haftorah for its mention of Elisha, a particular favorite prophet of mine going back to my childhood, when I had a large book of Bible stories with full-color pictures, a family heirloom going back to the 1920s, painted by an artist named Milo Winter (how could one ever forget a name like that?). I recall that Elisha’s teacher, Elijah, was a fierce-looking, raw-boned ascetic, garbed in rough brown sheepskin, tramping barefoot and bare-legged over hill and dale, armed with a long, knobby stick which, I imagined, he used to beat recalcitrant Israelites into heeding the word of God. In contrast, Winter’s renderings of Elisha depicted a white-haired-and-bearded, portly prophet, working his miracles while bestowing smiles on admiring adults and children. I warmed to Elisha immediately, loving him as much as I felt wary of Elijah. In a world of black-hatted rabbis who croaked “It’s a sin!” at my every action, Elisha was a forgiving, comforting presence.

I remember reading Elijah’s charge to Elisha, telling him that he would succeed Elijah as prophet of God after that stern, hawk-nosed seer departed this life.

“Let a double portion of your prophetic spirit pass on to me,” Elisha begged, concerned that he might not command as much respect among the people and nobility as had the take-no-nonsense Elijah (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah scowled (I imagined), but agreed.
As they walked through the rocky, windswept wilderness country, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses stormed down from the sky. Fearful, Elisha fell upon his knees, but bold Elijah climbed into it, and mounted up to heaven in a whirlwind. Bereft, Elisha cried out, “My father—my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elijah was gone, leaving only his cloak, symbol of his prophetic powers, behind. Elisha took it up, and resumed his journey.

Thus began Elisha’s prophetic career: he went on to bring a dead boy back to life (2 Kings 4:18-37), helped a poor widow to survive by miraculously multiplying the olive oil she had in a single jug (II Kings 4), fed a hundred people with a small number of barley cakes (2 Kings 4:42-44), created endless, fresh drinking water from a single bowl of salty water (2 Kings 4:1-7), made an iron ax-head float (2 Kings 6:1-7), and fearlessly conveyed the word of God to the idolatrous, rebellious kings of both Judah and Israel. Significantly, these are actions, not words, unlike the verbose prophets of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, who were more given to making speeches, rather than employing their prophetic powers to work miracles. It is significant that Elisha championed the common folk, and did not hesitate to speak the truth to those in power. Would that we had such leaders in Israel today!

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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