Life Lessons From Lepers
A haftorah of few options and many rewards
Sing, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town where he went to college. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted, but weak was his resolve and clouded his vision.
Like any worthy epic hero, Jeremy—whom I’ve just invented for the purpose of some modern mythmaking—is more fiction than fact, the embodiment of our cultural values and anxieties. He was born to educated and affluent parents, ambled through adolescence, and attended a great college where he spent his years thinking worthy thoughts. Then he graduated, moved in to an apartment in the city with two roommates, dated and drank and held a string of jobs that filled his days and his pocket but nothing more. One by one, he watched as his friends embarked on what appeared to be adult careers, with clear trajectories and handsome salaries. Now nearing 30, he stared at the mirror and saw there the stony gaze of doubt. He had so many things he wanted to do, so many interests and beliefs and possibilities, yet no idea which path to pursue. One by one, horizons narrowed and opportunities died down. Slowly, habit crept in and took over. Jeremy’s odyssey ended before it had even begun.
If Odysseus struck the Greeks as a perfect hero for a Hellenic world, clever and cunning and brave, Jeremy is a man for our times, a man who can do so much and yet does so little. Jeremy is what we get every time we’re tempted by the siren song of self-indulgence and confusion and despair. There’s a bit of Jeremy in many of us.
This week’s haftorah, however, has other heroes in mind. They’re lepers, and their condition had taught them a thing or two about how to live life.
“Now there were four men, stricken with [leprosy], at the entrance of the gate,” reads the haftorah. “And they said to each other, ‘Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say that we will come into the city, with the famine in the city, we will die there, and if we stay here we will die. So now, let us go and let us defect to the Aramean camp. If they spare us we will live, and if they kill us we will die.’ ”
The lepers enter the camp and find it abandoned. The Arameans, Israel’s enemies, had fled, fearing God’s wrath. The lepers share the good news with their co-religionists, who are quick to plunder the Aramean camp and its riches. As they rush to collect the goods, they trample an army officer to death; he’s the very same chap, we’re told, who had doubted God’s promise to subdue the Arameans before Israel.
It’s a fascinating role reversal. The lepers, society’s ultimate rejects, are delivered from their dejection because they refuse to succumb to hopelessness or abandon their faith. Calmly, they appraise their situation. They take action, and for that they are richly rewarded. The officer, on the other hand, is crushed, his sin being his refusal to acknowledge that in the chaotic course of human events, the highly unlikely is never too slim of a probability.
Jeremys the world over may want to take heed. When we believe, as most Americans believe, that we can do whatever we want to do and be whomever we want to be; that there’s an infinite number of future selves for us to choose from; that life cascades in a neat waterfall of cause and effect, we run the risk of being paralyzed by our own potentials. Having nothing to lose, the lepers did the right thing, entered the Aramean camp and informed their brethren of its condition; burdened by status and responsibility and knowledge, the officer chose somber military assessments over wild faith. They prospered, he perished.
When we next find ourselves pondering what to do with our options-laden lives, all we have to do is think of the lepers, come up with a plan, have a little faith, and take action. We should be like those ancient Babylonian statues of dogs, at the bottom of which wise men of antiquity had engraved: “Don’t think. Bite.” No other path could make us a hero, no other path takes us back home.
In early-20th-century Warsaw, making sure people observed the Sabbath was serious business