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Simple Remedies Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When I was a kid, I could spend hours mulling over my favorite tv shows or books, wondering what would happen next to the characters to whom I had become attached. Nowadays the creation of sequels or prequels to popular books, plays and movies has become a big business, as evidenced by this week’s release of a new prequel to Gone with the Wind and to the success of shows like “Wicked” or movies like “Mr Banks”.

The Haftarah that goes with this week’s Torah portion Tazria, the Haftarah we would have been reading had it not been Shabbat HaChodesh, happens to be one of my favorites. It tells the story of an Aramean general who is stricken with leprosy. The king of the Aramean’s, at the advice of his wife’s attendant, an Israelite woman captured in war and made a servant to the queen, sends him to Israel for healing. An international incident then threatens, as the Israelite king worries that failing to heal Naaman will be a pretext for an attack, but fortunately the prophet at the time, Elisha, is well able to heal the general Naaman.

Of course it doesn’t go smoothly at first. When Elisha fails to come out and greet Naaman and to provide a complicated ritual of healing but instead gives him the instruction to simply bath in the Jordan River, Naaman is insulted. Doesn’t he have bigger rivers back at home? And he stalks off in a rage.  But his servants convince him to try this simple cure, and when it works, he becomes a loyal fan of the God of Israel.  The story in the Haftarah ends with Naaman asking for forgiveness for his need in the future to go with the King to worship the God of the Arameans, the god Rimmon. There in their Temple, before the statute of Rimon,  the King will be leaning on his arm as he bows, causing Naaman too  to bow down, even as his heart is worshipping the God of Israel.

I think it’s a great Haftarah offering us a few simple teachings that remain relevant. In an age when we jump at all kinds of complicated and expensive medical treatments, but are not so quick to do the simple things that we know could improve our wellbeing, the Haftarah comes as a reminder, not to  belittle the power of the simple bathing in the Jordan. Eating right and exercising, sleeping, and finding ways of handling the stress in our lives, can go a long way to promoting health and wellness.

Additionally, I think for Jews as a religious minority in so many countries over so many centuries, the sympathy that the text shows for Naaman, as he navigates his personal religious observance with the duties of his role as the general of a foreign king, has been an important message. Naaman, whose name incidentally means, the faithful one, is told by the prophet, “Go in peace,” His need to accompany his King is recognized, and  his compromise of taking earth from Israel with which to build an altar to God back home, is accepted.

But there is one thing I hadn’t thought about until this year, and that is the rest of the story, the sequel to our Haftarah as it were. In the book of Second  Kings, the story goes on.  Naaman had  offered the prophet Elisha, the ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and one thousand changes of clothing, that the king had sent with him, but Elisha refused to accept any payment. Gehazi, Elisha’s attendant, hears this and has an idea. Why shouldn’t they benefit in some way from this man’s generosity? He follows Naaman on his way home and overtakes him on the road. He then makes up a story about Elisha sending him to ask for a little something for some refugees from Ephraim who have just turned up. Naaman is generous as Gehazi thought he might be, and Gehazi returns home, mission accomplished.

Elisha had been Elijah’s attendant and the succeeded him teacher, but Gehazi will not succeed Elisha.  Upon his return from chasing after Naaman,  Elisha asks him where he has been, and when he says, nowhere, his fate is sealed. The other servants in this story have been the source of good advice- the first the Israelite slave to the queen suggesting that Naaman come to Israel, and then Naaman’s own servants, who urge him to overcome his temper and try bathing in the Jordan. This attendant to Elisha is a dramatic contrast, subverting the direct instruction of his teacher. Elisha rebukes Gehazi  for turning a healing into a chance to make money for the purchase of “clothing and olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male and female slaves.” Clearly self-serving  corruption of public officials, whether State Senators from San Francisco, governors of east coast states, or officials in the prophetic administration is not a new problem.

Rachel as we go forth this morning, let’s steer clear of all self-promotion and personal profit when serving in a leadership role. Living here in America we too have to make adjustments to the majority culture, but let’s  aspire to be as loyal as Naaman, in the things that really matter. Finally, let’s remember the importance of doing the simple right things in our lives, not assuming that the more expensive or complicated is better, but remembering the power of a simple immersion in the Jordan river.


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