Haftarah Parshat Vayera (2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 4, 2017 / 15 Heshvan 5778
Stories often appear in the Tanakh with minimal detail and little to no context. And so it is with the story of the indebted widow who turns to Elisha to ensure that her children will not be taken away from her to pay the debt. But who is this widow? All we are told is: “And one of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha” (2 Kings 4:1) Thankfully, the rabbinic sages were wont to provide context for episode like this one, filling in details, and bringing the story to an entirely new level.
A rabbinic tradition exists which identifies this widow as the wife of King Ahab’s servant, Obadiah, who saved God’s prophets from the hands of Ahab’s wicked wife, Jezebel, who sought their death. This project required enormous funding and that is where our story begins. According to one account, Obadiah was forced to take a usurious loan from Yoram, King Ahab’s son, (usury is forbidden in the Jewish tradition), in order to care for these prophets. Upon Obadiah’s death, Yoram called in the loans, ruining the widow financially, and prompting the whole episode in our Haftarah. (See Tanhuma Mishpatim 5)
Meanwhile, in the previous chapter in Kings, Mesha, the Moabite king, had decided that Ahab’s death provided a great opportunity to rebel against Israel. (See 2 Kings 3). Another midrash accounts for Mesha’s decision. Mesha asked his advisors for the secret to Israel’s military success. They told him that it all depended on the merit of Avraham who had been willing to sacrifice his only son to God. This willingness, even though the act was not ultimately carried out, provided Israel with the merit in God’s eyes necessary for its success. Upon hearing this, Mesha decided that he could better Avraham by actually sacrificing his own son to idolatry, which he does. At this point, God’s fury broke forth against Israel. Whereupon, God challenged Israel: “Idol worshippers do not recognize My honor and that is why they rebel against Me; but you, [Israel] recognize My honor, but, nevertheless, rebel against Me. Said Rabbi Mani: ‘If it were not for the merit of Obadiah’s wife, Israel would have been destroyed, [as it says:] ‘And one of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying,’ (2 Kings 4:1)” (See Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 2:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp 21-23)
This story of Obadiah’s wife’s heroism is inspired by the juxtaposition of these two stories in Kings, but what is Rabbi Mani suggesting in the drasha? He seems to suggest that her heroism was in her turning to God. Mesha’s deeds may have been wrongheaded but he did not ignore or neglect his deity. God, on the other hand, criticized Israel for neglecting HIm. And as is often the case, an unsung hero or heroine saved the day through exemplary behavior. Obadiah’s wife’s plaintive cry to God’s prophet does not seem like such a monumental act but in the face of indifference, it meant everything.