Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

The seventh chapter of Kings II (related to the theme of the portions Tazria and Metzora, read as the Haftorah of Metzora), tells a fascinating story, about the “four lepers.”

The story takes place during the First Temple era when the Assyrian Army swept down on the Northern Kingdom of Israel and laid siege to the city of Samaria (Shomron). (Siege was the ultimate strategy in ancient warfare, comparable to a present-day naval blockade. If an invading force could not penetrate the city walls, the enemy would encamp around the walls of the city, cutting off all supplies, especially food and water, and wait until the inhabitants were starved and forced to surrender.)

The city of Samaria was under siege by the Assyrian army. The hunger was devastating. “A donkey’s head was being sold for food for eighty pieces of silver, and a cup of dove’s dung was a meal sold for five pieces of silver.” (Kings II 6:25)

The famine was horrendous, people were resorting to cannibalism. One day the king of Israel, Jehoram (Yehoram), was walking along the inner walls of the city when a woman called to him, saying: "Your majesty, please help me." The king answered, "What is the matter?" The woman said, "My neighbor came to me, and said, 'Come, let us eat your [dead] son today, and then tomorrow we will eat my [dead] son.' So we cooked my son, and ate him. But then the next day when I said to her, 'Now let us eat your [dead] son.' But she refused, and has hidden her son from me [in order to have him for herself].”[1]

Jehoram, the king, was a fickle man. He blamed the great Jewish prophet of the time, Elisha (the disciple of Elijah the prophet), for his troubles, and had issued an edict of death against him. Jehoram even followed his soldier to Elisha’s quarters, to observe the arrest and execution. But instead of killing him, the king was confronted with a prophecy from Elisha declaring that G-d would provide deliverance for Israel the very next day.

"Then Elisha said, ‘Hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord: ‘Tomorrow about this time a seah (a particular weight measure) of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel (a small currency), and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.’’

"So an officer on whose hand the king leaned answered the man of G-d and said, ‘Look, even if the Lord would make windows in heaven [for the rain to come down], could this thing be?’ And Elisha said, ‘In fact, you shall see it with your eyes, but you shall not eat of it.’" (2 Kings 7:1-2).

The Four Lepers

It is at this point where the narrative shifts from what’s happening inside the city walls to a scene outside the city walls—and this is where the haftorah of Tazria-Metzora begins—where four lepers are both starving and quarantined because they are lepers and all lepers were quarantined outside of the city.

"Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate; and they said to one another, ‘Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘We will enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. Now, therefore, come, let us surrender to the army of the Syrians. If they keep us alive, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall only die.’" (2 Kings 7:3-4)

They had at that point three options: 1) They could march back to the city that quarantined them in the first place, and try to get in. But what would be the point? There wasn’t any food inside the city. 2) They could march forward where the Assyrian Army was encamped. The Assyrians had plenty of food. But if the lepers did that, they might be killed on sight, because they were both lepers and from the enemy. 3) They could just sit there outside the walls of the city, and die from starvation without complication.

It was out of this deep distress that they said to each other: "Why just sit here until we die?"

The four lepers chose to get up and march directly to the camp of the Assyrian army. In the evening hours, they marched toward the Syrian camp.

The Escape

It was then that something extraordinary occurred.

The Assyrian troops imagined that they heard the noise of chariots, the sound of pounding of hundreds of horses' hooves. They were convinced they could hear the clashing of thousands of swords, the vanguard of an enemy army on the offensive. The army panicked and abandoned their camp, leaving their tents, armor, horses, chariots, and all their food behind. In their perception, the Jews hired the Egyptian and Hittite armies to attack them. They fled for their lives.

[This miracle reminds us of what occurred on our own watch in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. When it became clear that the Arabs were going to lose, and lose miserably, President Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan concocted a story about the Americans and British entering the war on Israel's side. The demoralized Egyptian soldiers, left mountains of shoes in the desert so as to run faster. They couldn't outrun Israeli tanks and so many were captured that the Israelis did not have where to place them].

A Loaded Camp

“And the lepers came to the edge of the camp, and they entered one tent, and they ate and they drank, and they carried off silver and gold and garments and they hid them; then they returned and entered another tent, and they carried items from there also and went and hid them.” (Kings II 7:8)

But then they experience a change of heart: “And they said to each other, ‘We are not acting properly. Today is a day of good news, and we are being quiet about it. If we wait till the morning light, then we will have sinned. Now, therefore, let us go and tell what we have learned at the King’s household.” (7:9)

The Good News

The lepers notified the guard at the gate of the city about the news. The gatekeeper had a hard time convincing the king that the Assyrians had actually left and were not planning an ambush, but after sending some of his soldiers first, news came back to the monarch that indeed the Assyrians have left behind all their belongings and enormous quantities of food.

There was a mad rush. The people ran out of the city to fetch the food of the Assyrians. The prophecy of Elisha was fulfilled: A seah of wheat flour and two seah of barley were sold for a minimal shekel.

The king's right-hand man, who had mocked Elisha the day before when the prophet foretold a miraculous deliverance, was assigned to patrol the gates and was trampled to death by the people who were rushing out to buy food at low prices. Elisha’s words to him, “you will see it but not eat it,” came to fruition. "Now the king had appointed the officer on whose hand he leaned to take charge of the gate. But the people trampled him in the gate, and he died, just as the man of G-d had said.” (2 Kings 7:17-18)

Do Something

Like all biblical stories, this one too contains many insights and lessons. Let’s focus on three.

Sometimes we feel stuck in life. We find ourselves between a rock and a hardball. All options seem bleak. The worst thing to do in such a situation is to remain in one place. You must stand up and move. You must make a change; do something. Anything. But move forward. Even though you think you are subjecting yourself to further disaster, just making that move can transform your reality and you may discover an unexpected result that can alter your entire situation.

Sometimes you feel stuck in your business, in your marriage, in your personal psychological condition, or in any other paralyzing situation in life. The worst thing you can do is remain in one place and wait to wither away. Move! Reach out and speak to another person. Change your schedule. Start doing something new and different in your life. Open yourself up to new types of projects, people, and experiences. Shock your system. Start biking; go to the gym; join a class, a group, become part of a project. Open yourself up to someone and share that which shames you most. Start learning Torah. Whatever you choose—but ensure it is something new and different. When we change our familiar patterns we open new pathways in our brains, and we generate new energy around us—and that can create opportunities unimaginable before.

Fear Not Opposition

There is another vital message here. Often we are afraid to initiate new projects, undertake new ventures, to ask someone for assistance, since we are scared of what the response might be. If we march ahead, we might experience rejection, and that never feels good. If you are by nature soft and sensitive, getting a “no,” feels devastating. Some people never live out their dreams because they are too afraid of the feedback.

The lepers imagined that an entire Assyrian army would be waiting for them to attack. Yet when they moved ahead, they realized there was nobody there.

When you are doing the right thing, when you are doing G-d’s work, do not worry that much about the perception of others and how they will respond. You march ahead and you might discover that there is no opposition.

A wise man (Reb Gershon of Zhlabin) once said to me: What is the difference between a 20-year old, a 40-year old, and a 60-year old? The 20-year old is self-conscious about his place in the world. He is concerned to make a good impression, to be perceived as an awesome young man. He is very sensitive to how people view him. The 40-year old declares: “I do not care what people think of me. I could not care less how others look at me. I must be true to myself. You like me—good! You don’t like me, that’s fine too.” The 60-year old realizes that no one was ever looking at him.

Redemption from the Lepers

Finally, there is another profound message in this narrative.

The disease of leprosy was the quintessential malady of ancient times. Lepers were the outcasts of society. They were quarantined, isolated, and rejected. They lived alone on the outskirts of the city, separate from the rest of civilization. Yet the Book of Leviticus dedicates two complete portions to them—to their symptoms, their fate, their healing process, and their return to society. Why?

The answer is in the story of the four lepers. We each have a leper within—that dimension of ourselves that makes us feel isolated, ugly, and unworthy. The extraordinary message of this story is that sometimes the news about salvation comes from the four lepers outside the city. If we ignore the lepers around us, we deprive ourselves of our own redemption. And if we ignore the leper within ourselves, we deny ourselves our own liberation.

It is precisely the aspects of your personality that you are most ashamed of that may provide you with the most penetrating insights into your life and mission if you only have the courage to expose them and dig deep into them. If you work with those parts of yourself, if you stare them in the eyes, if you acknowledge them with full honesty and vulnerability, if you share them with others you trust, you may discover how they constitute a springboard for your own moral, emotional and spiritual growth. The “leper” within you might set you free.

Moshiach the Leper

Which may be one way of explaining the perplexing Talmudic statement: “What is the name of Moshiach? The leper!”[2] Why would the Moshiach be given this title?

Because that which shames you most may hold the key to your redemption, if you will only muster the courage to embrace it and see it in its most pristine and pure state. What you have been running away from most, what you have tried to quarantine, what you are so deeply ashamed of, carries your deepest light. You need only trace it back to its authentic nature and origin, and then you will discover how this very “leper” is your Moshiach, your prophet and messenger of psychological and spiritual emancipation.

That is why the name given to Moshiach is the “metzorah,” the “leper.” How will Moshiach heal such an insane world (a “meshugene velt”)? He will show that the healing energy was always there. We were just misreading the map—the map of ourselves and of others.

The late Jewish philanthropist Irving Stone spent a lifetime studying greatness, writing novelized biographies of such men as Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Sigmund Freud, and others. Stone was once asked if he had found a thread that runs through the lives of all these exceptional people. He said, "I write about people who sometime in their life have a vision or dream of something that should be accomplished and they go to work. They are beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified, and for years they get nowhere. But every time they're knocked down, they stand up. You cannot destroy these people. And at the end of their lives, they've accomplished some modest part of what they set out to do."[3]


[1] This is the interpretation of Rashi 6:29. Others explain it differently (see Radak and Ralbag).

[2] Sanhedrin 98b

[3] This essay is partially based on Likkutei Sichos vol. 22 Tazria-Metzorah. Vol. 37 Metzora. Sefer Hasichos 5751 Tzaria-Metzorah.