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Lessons from an ancient tale

In our Jewish cycle of Bible readings, we recently read a curious story in Second Kings. The city of Samaria is under siege, and inside, the people are starving. Outside the city gates sit four lepers — people isolated because of their contagion and forced to rely on charity. The lepers’ conversation is akin to what we would call “gallows humor.” They say to one another, “Why should we sit here until we die? If we enter the city, there’s a famine there, and we’ll die there. If we sit here, we’ll die of starvation. Let us, therefore, go to the camp of the Arameans. If they feed us, we shall live. If they kill us, we will not be any deader than if we stay here.” (Second Kings 7:3-4)

So, they take their chances and go over to the besieging army’s camp. The surprise is that no one is there. Every soldier is gone, though they seem to have left everything else behind: tents, donkeys, food, etc. At this point, the narrator explains: “There was no man there, for the Lord had made the camp of the Arameans hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, the noise of a great army; and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel must have hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians to gang up against us. Therefore the Arameans rose and fled in the twilight, leaving their tents and their horses and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was and fleeing for their lives.”

The hungry lepers proceed from tent to tent, eating food and selecting valuables to hide. This is all fine for a while, but then they realize that they have a moral duty to their city. “It is not right for us to keep this good news to ourselves. If we stay here all night, we’d be guilty for not sharing the news with the people in the city. Come, let us go and tell the king’s household about what we have found.”

So, the lepers tell the king’s guards, and — after a foray to make sure the Arameans are not waiting in ambush — the food abandoned in the camp feeds the hungry people of the city. The siege and the famine are over, and the people are left to ponder this incredible turn of events.

I find three lessons in the story.

First, the miraculous noise that scares the living daylights out of the sieging Arameans reminds us that God’s assistance can be dramatic. Lest we only look for economic or political or military reasons for our victories or defeats, the Bible suggests that we consider the moral dimension and the possibility of God’s intervention. The miraculous does not happen all the time, but it can happen, and it does.

Second, despite their own difficult situation, the lepers see their moral duty to help the people of their city. Even when we are faced with tragedy or illness or poverty, there are still opportunities for us to help others or to participate in “tikkun olam” (the repair of the world). These lepers in ancient Samaria give us an example of not letting our bitterness get in the way of our humanity.

Third, these lepers, excluded from society and probably considered of little value, had great value and made a major contribution to the lives of the city-dwellers. It is like Shimon ben Azzai says in Pirke Avot (4:3): “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and there is no thing that does not have its place.”

There is also the moral question of how we treat the victims of disease. While society has the right to protect its members against the dangers of contagion, we must beware the tendency to devalue the ill among us. Remembering their humanity is always the right thing to do.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.