The Haftarah this week (II Kings 7:3-20) takes place during a siege of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Syria. The prophet Elisha tells King Jehoram (c. 849-842 BCE) the siege will be broken and wheat and barley will sell very cheaply in just one day. One officer scoffs that even God cannot do that. Elisha responds that the officer will see it, but not eat of it.
Four lepers, quarantined outside the city, are also starving. They reason, “If we stay here, we die of hunger. Maybe the enemy will kill us anyway, but maybe they will give us some food.”
When they approach the enemy, they find the camp deserted. In an ancient example of “fake news,” God has miraculously made the enemy hear the sound of a huge approaching army, and the Syrians have fled in terror.
The lepers enter the camp, eat and drink, and carry off silver, gold and clothing, but then they have a change of heart, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news … let us go back and tell the king’s household.”
The lepers return to town with the real news that the enemy has deserted. Jehoram is skeptical. But his advisors reason they have nothing to lose and prevail upon the king to check out the far-fetched story.
“So they followed the lepers … and the way was littered with garments and equipment the Syrians had thrown away in their haste. And the messengers returned and told the king.”
The Israelites plundered the camp of the Syrians. Indeed, fine flour and barley plummeted in price, just as Elisha had foretold.
The scoffing officer was trampled to death by the crowds at the city gate — after seeing Elisha’s prophecy fulfilled.
The Syrians lost because they fell for “fake news,” terrorized by an imaginary enemy.
The lepers overcame their inclination to simply grab food and wealth for themselves and recognized they were better than that, so they warned King Jehoram. Thus they saved not only themselves, but their entire people. Although marginalized by their disease, their loyalty and sense of justice prevailed.
King Jehoram, as the leader of his people, had to, and did, learn to distinguish between fake news and real news, whom to trust, and to verify what he hears.
This brief, ancient text is still timely today. While we may want to presume that our ancestors were primitive and unsophisticated, they faced many of the same universal challenges that we do, and the worst and best of them handled those challenges like the worst and best of us.
Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman is the spiritual leader at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Columbia.