M’lochim II 4:5-5:19
This week’s haftorah gives us appreciation for the invaluable benefits of punishment. Suprisingly, it revolves around a pagan general who merited an open miracle from Hashem. Naaman, the highest ranking general of Aram was stricken with a severe case of leprosy. He received advice from an abducted Jewish maid servant to visit the prophet Elisha for a cure. Naaman consulted the king of Aram who sent a personal request to the king of Israel to treat Naaman’s leprosy. The prophet Elisha volunteered and summoned Naaman to appear before him. When Naaman arrived Elisha sent him a message to dip seven times in the Jordan waters. Appalled by the disrespect shown to him and infuriated by the mockery of this prescription Naaman decided to return home. However, he reluctantly acquiesced in his servant’s plea and consented to try the bath. Hashem miraculously healed Naaman’s flesh and returned it to a tender texture. Naaman responded by approaching Elisha and proclaiming Hashem as the exclusive power of the entire world. Before parting, Naaman loaded his mules with holy earth of Israel to construct an altar in Aram for Hashem.
Naaman’s entire episode intrigues us. Why would a pagan general deserve such a miracle and what can be learned from this? In order to properly appreciate this we refer to our Sages’ insightful words who reveal to us the cause of Naaman’s leprosy. They cite numerous sources for the plague of leprosy listing Naaman’s haughtiness amongst them. They draw proof to this from our haftorah that begins, “And Naaman, the general of Aram was a big, distinguished person to the king because Hashem saved Aram through him.” Chazal interpret the words, “big person” to refer to Naaman’s haughty perception of himself that was far out of proportion. (see Bamidbar Rabba 7:5) Although Hashem saved Aram through Naaman’s actions Naaman deserved little credit for this victory. The reality was that Naaman incidentally drew his bow which unexpectedly killed the Jewish king, Achav. This unintentional victory won Naaman the king’s favor and gave him a full measure of false pride.
Hashem responded to this haughty attitude and attacked Naaman’s ego through a plague of leprosy. This began Naaman’s intense program of humility which ultimately led to unparalleled results. The first stage was the powerful general’s incapacitated feeling brought about by the illness. His next taste of humility was his desperate need to follow his abducted Jewish maid servant’s suggestion for his remedy. The next step was Elisha’s impersonal response to Naaman’s visit. After reducing himself to approach a Jewish prophet for a remedy Naaman anticipated, at the very least, a royal welcome. He was taken aback when Elisha did not even consider him worthy of a personal welcome. The prophet’s absurd prescription made Naaman feel foolish for even going through all this bother. He was even further humbled when he responded to his servants’ logical plea to respect the prophet’s suggestion. His final dimension of humility was in the bathing process itself, which involved repeatedly lowering himself into natural waters. After this all encompassing lesson in humility Naaman adopted a healthier attitude on life. Now that Naaman rectified the source of his illness Hashem deemed him worthy of His favor and removed the physical illness, as well. Naaman immediately responded to his experience and recognized and proclaimed Hashem’s exclusive sovereignty in the world.
But the story didn’t end there. Naaman continued his humble path and bent down to collect dirt from under the prophet’s feet to erect a permanent altar for Hashem. (see Abarbanel 5:17) He vowed to detach himself from all idolatrous practices and sincerely worship Hashem. Baal Haturim adds that Naaman was true to his word. He continued to develop his relationship with Hashem which resulted in the sincere conversion of some of his offsprings. Their devotion to Hashem was so intense that they became prominent Torah leaders amongst our people. (see comment to Sh’mos 28:9)
This unbelievable development was undoubtedly due to Naaman’s quality of recognizing the full truth. Our Sages teach us that Naaman’s statement of recognition exceeded all preceding ones. Yisro recognized Hashem above all other powers, Rachav recognized Hashem as the source of all powers but Naaman proclaimed Hashem of Israel as the only true power. (Yalkut Shimoni 229) Initially, Naaman’s victory gave him an abhorrent level of haughtiness. Hashem did not tolerate that attitude and gave Naaman the opportunity of rectifying it. We have seen, however, that this process was quite difficult and demanded enormous levels of subservience. The only way for Naaman to get beyond his predicament was to swallow all of his pride. This meant appreciating the truth and following it at all costs. Naaman faithfully responded to his challenge and painfully respected every dimension of truth sent his way. These truths became so clear to him that he ultimately realized that the entire world was exclusively in Hashem’s hands.
We now realize that Naaman was indeed a unique individual who possessed tremendous potential to recognize the truth. Hashem, who knows the potential of every human being, sent Naaman this leprosy as an opportunity for rectification and growth. Although Naaman was not Jewish he was obviously worthy of his lesson and experience. He goes down in Jewish our history as one of the few who agreed to recognize the truth. Although Naaman began as our total enemy priding himself in this he made a total reversal and recognized Hashem in an all encompassing way. Naaman’s appropriate response brought tremendous honor to Hashem. We can therefore comfortably suggest that this was Hashem’s original intent for bringing Naaman this miraculous experience.
Naaman’s leprosy teaches us the value of punishment and its hidden blessing. It served its purpose well as a powerful vehicle to teach humility. Although Naaman began with an abhorrent approach he obediently followed his road signs which eventually attacked the source of his problem. The illness, the many emissaries, his impersonal reception, the degrading prescription and the actual bathing process all contributed towards his humility. This led to his sincere recognition of Hashem which in turn, produced prominent offspring’s who became scholarly leaders of our people.
This insight regarding punishment is very helpful when studying the lonely plight of the leper in this week’s parsha. Although the leper did not commit any national offense he goes through a tremendous humiliating experience. We now understand that his predicament is not a punishment, rather, an opportunity for rectification and growth. His illness and all its dimensions force him to reconsider his ways but, also serve as a catalyst for spiritual growth. The leper increases his sensitivity in those areas that created his predicament and removes the blind spots he possessed until this point. His new approach to life fosters a stronger relationship with Hashem and helps him appreciate Hashem’s constant favor in all areas of his life.