Gee-haz and Jee-zaz — Pushed Too Far

Posted: February 9, 2015 in Midrash, Mussar (Ethics), Prophets, Stories, Talmud
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inn (2)

In Chapter 5 of II Kings, we read of Naaman, the general of Aram, who comes to the prophet Elisha to be healed of his leprosy. Long story short, Elisha heals Naaman, and Naaman wishes to repay Elisha. The prophet, however, will not accept payment.

[As an aside, I feel it important to note that we learn from Elisha that any so-called “miracle workers” today who offer their services in exchange for money are undoubtedly charlatans preying on vulnerable people for personal gain. This is not the way of great men. STAY FAR AWAY! For more on this, follow the work of James Randi, who spent his life exposing so-called “psychics” and other fakers of supernatural abilities. Our rabbis teach us, however, that the reddest herring is the one who demands to be paid. Elisha was the real deal.]

So Elisha won’t accept payment, but Elisha’s less scrupulous steward, Gechazi, pursues Naaman and accepts his gifts. Elisha, not unaware of what Gechazi has done (he is a prophet after all), curses Gechazi with Naaman’s leprosy, effectively banishing Gechazi from his presence.

The Talmud in Sotah 47A criticizes Elisha for his harshness with Gechazi, and indeed compares him to one of the Sages during Second Temple times who likewise shunned a student too harshly, leading to unimaginably dark consequences for the Jewish people:

Sotah

Our Sages taught: One should always push away with the left and bring close with the right, not like Elisha who pushed away Gechazi with both his hands, and not like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah who pushed away one of his students with both his hands…

The Talmud recounts both incidents in great detail. The Talmudic account of the interaction between Elisha and Gechazi is more detailed than that in Scripture. I hope to return to this in a later post. For now, let us focus on the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah and “one of his students,” whose identity we know from uncensored editions of the Talmud to be “Yeshu haNotzri,” widely believed to be the same personage as Jesus of Nazareth. Christian censors in the Middle Ages had these passages stricken from standard editions of the Talmud.

According to this Talmudic passage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah, while traveling from Alexandria to Jerusalem with a group of his disciples, one of whom was this Yeshu, stopped in a certain inn for lodging. The innkeepers showed Rabbi Yehoshua very great respect, and Rabbi Yehoshua spoke praisingly of his hosts. This Yeshu took Rabbi Yehoshua’s praise to refer specifically to the beauty of their hostess, and Yeshu made a remark to his teacher about the woman’s eyes. Rabbi Yehoshua was so offended by Yeshu’s predilection for the physical beauty of a married woman that he excommunicated him. Day after day, Yeshu tried to return to his teacher but was rebuffed. One day, when Rabbi Yehoshua had finally resolved to accept Yeshu’s penance and retract his excommunication, Yeshu arrived just as Rabbi Yehoshua was reciting the Shema and hence unable to respond to him. Rabbi Yehoshua held up a hand as if to say, “wait,” but Yeshu interpreted the hand signal as another rejection. Yeshu gave up trying to return to gain Rabbi Yehoshua’s forgiveness and turned instead to establishing a renegade religion. Rabbi Yehoshua tried pursuing Yeshu to convince him to repent, but Yeshu responded, “I learned from you that anyone who sins and causes the masses to sin has no opportunity for repentance!” The passage concludes that Yeshu practiced sorcery, led others toward idolatry, and caused Israel to sin.

This story, along with that of Elisha and Gechazi became the archetype for the Rabbis’ teaching that one should be careful not to push others away too strongly, only with the left (weaker) hand, while bringing close with the right (stronger) hand.

The story of Elisha and Gechazi likewise led to exceedingly tragic consequences for the nation of Israel, arguably worse than those of the above episode. But this is a story to be explored in another post. Stay tuned.

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