Haftara for Tazria-Metsora 5777: Skin in the Game
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‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste death but once’
– William Shakespeare
II Kings 7:3-20
The haftara is part of a series of stories relating to the prophecies and actions of Elisha the prophet (disciple of Eliyahu), and the wars fought by Israel against Aram. Our haftara begins in the midst of a brutal siege laid around the Israelite territory of Shomron. The siege causes famine and the price of food spirals out of control. ‘A donkey’s head is sold for eighty shekel of silver’ (6:25). The king, who is without hope, sends his messenger to Elisha for help. Elisha tells him that by morning the circumstances will switch: ‘a se’ah of fine flour shall sell for a shekel at the gate of Shomron and two se’ah of barley for a shekel’. The king’s messenger scoffs at the absurdity of the possibility and Elisha swears to him that as a result of his arrogant skepticism he will see it come to pass but will die before experiencing it.
The prophecy begins to unfold when four Israelite lepers, who are outside the walls of Shomron, decide to defect to the Aramean camp and beg for mercy. They have nothing to lose as they are all on the brink of death. However, when they arrive they find the camp deserted ‘For God had caused the Aramean camp to hear a sound of chariots and horses’, and the Aramean soldiers fled in terror. The lepers raid the camp which is well stocked with food and other commodities. At first they decide to take it for themselves and bury their spoils, but soon after they reconsider and bring the news of plenty and fortune to the king. The king sends an envoy to inspect the veracity of their claim and upon verifying it the people raid the camp for sustenance. Elisha’s prophecy had come to pass including the death of the king’s messenger. As he was standing at the gate beholding the plenty discovered in the camp, he is trampled to death by the throngs of people.
The world is unpredictable. Events occur unexpectedly, which have major effects on our current situations. From the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to Brexit and President Trump, the world’s major developments are overwhelmingly marked by events of low predictability and large impact.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes this case in his book The Black Swan. He defines a ‘Black Swan’ as an unexpected event that has the following three attributes:
- Extreme impact
- Retrospective predictability
The third factor is intriguing. While we cannot realistically predict the occurrence of a Black Swan we nonetheless feel compelled to see it as having been predictable. This makes us feel that the world is more certain than it really is.
But we are all faced with the unpredictable. For many of us the most significant events in our lives are rarely scheduled. Our profession, the meeting of our mate, moving from our place of origin, loves, betrayals, wealth and loss often come to us in unanticipated ways.
Our options for living in such a world are either to engage personally (and accept the risks) or observe from the sidelines (out of fear and insecurity).
Taleb refers to the willingness to immerse ourselves in real events as ‘having skin in the game’. The value of being open to the consequences of living in the real world is that it is heuristic — the abrasions on our skin as a result of our experiences guide our learning. Vulnerable, active living teaches us like nothing else can. The Greeks called this pathemata mathemata — guide your learning through pain.
Having skin in the game of life means exposing ourselves to cuts and scrapes but it also means being able to touch and feel the world intimately. We must be comfortable in our own skin and know that it is through it, where our nerve endings reside, that we feel anything at all.
But standing on the sidelines is not really a true option. We can talk about the game and how others are playing it. We can find the negatives and scoff at those who have suffered a loss of skin. We can critique and comment, but that is a path that, because it invests nothing, leads to nowhere. We call these people gossips. They live their lives ‘safely’ on the outside and gain their artificial sense of self-worth by peddling information that is not their own. They do not have skin in the game.
The retribution for gossip in the Torah is the dermal disorder calledצרעת – tsara’at; the central subject of our parasha.
Tsara’at…as a pathology is not natural. It was a marvel and sign to Israel to warn them away from maligning, evil speech. (Rambam)
Ironically, though, it is through the gossip’s skin that his verbal iniquity is manifest. His skin begins to corrode, and erupt with malignant lesions as a consequence of his maligning tongue.
Our haftara’s opening scene includes four such people.
Now there were four men with tsara’at, at the entrance to the [town] gate…. (7:3)
It is in the haftara that the implications of having skin in the game or not, are poetically woven together.
The lepers are outside the city during a time of abject poverty for Israel. They are at the point where they have nothing to lose — their skin has literally corroded and they are on the brink of death. And so they, with low risk, decide to walk into the camp of the Aramean soldiers and surrender. They will either die by their hands or of their own condition.
They said, each one to his neighbour:
Why are we sitting here until we die?
If we say, Let us go into the town,
there is a famine in the town,
and we will die there,
and if we sit here, we will die.
So-now, let us go and fall away to the camp of Aram—
if they let us live, then we will live,
and if they put us to death, then we will die.(7:3-4)
What they find instead is a deserted camp filled with food and riches. It is here that they have the choice to resort to their old ways or choose to re-engage as faithful members of society. They hesitate, but ultimately decide that they will now emerge from their tsara’at and finally play the game with whatever skin they have left.
And those with tsara’at came to the edge of the camp,
and they entered a tent, and ate and drank,
and carried off from there silver and gold and garments,
and went away and hid them…
Then they said, each one to his neighbour:
It is not proper, what we are doing;
this day—it is a day of [good] news,
and we are keeping silent!
If we wait until the light of daybreak,
iniquity will find us!
So-now, let us go, let us enter, and let us inform the king’s house. (7:8-9)
Our haftara is a Black Swan story. No one believed it, but it happened.
There is one character in our story, however, who scoffs at the wonders that an unpredictable world might have in store.
Then Elisha said:
Thus says God:
Around this time tomorrow,
a sei’a of flour [will go] for a shekel
and two sei’as of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Shomeron.
Then the officer upon whose arm the king leans spoke up to the man of God and said:
Here, were God to make hatches in the sky,
could this thing happen? He said:
Here, you will see it with your eyes,
but you shall not eat!
Even when the Black Swan stares him in the face prior to the fact, he will not relinquish his protective self-serving cynicism.
It is here that we learn of another essential component to a random world — its values are shown to us through irony and poetic justice. Justice in contrast to law depends on freedom for its manifestation. Justice must be sensitive to the context and situation in which crimes may occur.
While law can be standardised, justice must be open and responsive.
Poetic justice doesn’t affirm that the world is blindly fair, it rather restores our faith in a God who is responsive, empathic and caring. Appropriate response is a far more powerful assertion of value and truth to us than fairness.
God’s justice consoles us and living with the hope for it carries us through time and space. Our immortal people have learned that despite the fact that we may not see its full manifestation in our lifetimes or even in ten lifetimes, it is nonetheless a faithful ribbon that runs through the entirety of creation. It is real and true and at times we may feel the splendour of its presence as with the exquisite flash of a bolt of lightning.
It is therefore, not in the evidence of God’s power that we find our covenant with Him but in the evidence of His mutual investment with ours in the world. We risk our lives and He risks His creations.
God’s risk is in providing a world of chance that grants us the possibility of freedom and choice. But with the gift of these choices — just as we are free to build our lives we are equally free to destroy them. Every soul that God creates and thus, loves, He genuinely risks losing.
As our parasha presents, the people of Israel have sealed a covenant with God with literal skin in the game.
And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin is to be circumcised. (Lev., 12:3)
And through that covenant with our very flesh and blood we play through the millennia. It is with Black Swans that God has shown His love and commitment to our people and to the world and through them, with skinned knees we have carried on.
It is with Black Swans that we have returned to our mother soil an event for which we had hoped through eons. An event whose reality we celebrate this week on Yom Ha’Atsmaut.
There is a Black Swan that we yet await and that, like all the others, will come to pass just when we least expect it.
Mashiah (the Messiah) will arrive when we are not paying attention. (Sanhedrin, 97a)
There will be those as always who, like the cynic in our haftara will say that it won’t or can’t happen. Indeed if there is one thing we have learned — crazier things have happened. It will happen, all we need to do is be open to it, wait for it and play with our skin in the game.
For there is yet a prophecy for a set term…even if it tarries, wait for it still; For it will surely come, without delay:…the righteous man is rewarded with Life for his faithfulness. (Habakuk, 2:3)
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, New York: Random House, 2007.
 For a wonderful treatment on raising children to live this way see The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blessing-Skinned-Knee-Teachings-Self-Reliant/dp/1416593063
 Mishne Torah, Tum’at Tsara’at, 16:10. Cf. Arakhin, 16a.
 The מדה כנגד מדה form of divine discipline.
 There is no word for fair in Hebrew. Even the modern stand-in הוגן – hogen is but a reworking of the word for appropriate — הגון hagun.
IV Tazriah / V Metzorah
24 Ritual purification after birth (12:1-8)
25 Early symptoms of tzora’at (13:1-8)
26 Diagnosing tzora’at (13:9-17)
27a Tzora’at from a healing boil (13:18-23)
27b Tzora’at from a burn (13:24-28)
28a Tzora’at on head or face (13:29-37)
28b A bohuk-type blemish is not tzora’at (13:38-39)
28c Tzora’at from baldness (13:40-46)
28d Tzora’at of clothing (13:47-59)
29a Ritual purification from tzora’at (14:1-20)
29b Ritual purification from tzora’at for poor (14:21-32)
30 Tzora’at of buildings (14:33-57)
31a Tum’ah due to a man’s pathological discharge (15:1-15)
31b Tum’ah due to normal seminal emission (15:16-18)
32a Tum’ah due to normal menstruation (15:19-24)
32b Tum’ah due to a woman’s pathological bloody
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS