Haftarah Parashat Vayera
October 27, 2018 | 18 Heshvan 5779
2 Kings 4:1-37
Elijah and Elisha were Israel’s miracle-working prophets. They saved poor widows from the clutches of poverty and when needed even resurrected the dead.
This week’s haftarah tells the tale of a wealthy but childless woman in the town of Shunem. Whenever Elisha came to town, she generously hosted him and offered him bread to eat. He, like the angels who come to visit a childless Avraham and Sarah, prophecies that she will give birth to a child, an event which ultimately comes to pass. The Shunamite woman’s miracle child grows up, but unlike Yitzchak in the story of the Akeida, he is taken from her. One day while working in the field, he clutches his head and dies. The dead child is brought home and placed on his bed and the Shunamite woman summons Elisha the prophet. Elisha comes and miraculously restores the child to life, perhaps echoing the angel who directed Avraham to spare his son and sacrifice the ram in his place.
The rabbinic sages saw this as far more than a fantastical story, and drew out of it a powerful moral lesson. As read by Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:5:3, the miracle at the end of the story was a product of the simple righteous act done at its beginning: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai came forward and took as his text: ‘One day, Elisha visited Shunem. A wealthy woman lived there and urged him to have a meal’ (2 Kings 4:8). Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Shimon said to him: ‘Is it really true that because “she urged him to have a meal”, she merited that her son be brought back to life?’ Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: ‘Great is the merit of those who maintain the needy, for their acts cause the resurrection of the dead to occur before its time.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai believed in a world of strict justice – sins are punished and good deeds are rewarded. There is no such thing as a free miracle. But he, like many other sages, also believed in midah k’neged midah – that justice is poetic, with the consequences themselves reflecting the original deed. So the healing of the Shunamite woman’s son was brought about because she also performed a “miracle”, namely, she fed those who were needy, which in a sense might also be considered a kind of tehiyat hametim – resurrection of the dead.
Though we may not share Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s mechanistic view, this does not preclude taking seriously the idea that human actions, both positive and negative, reverberate and have real consequences. Even when the causal sequence is unclear, we can choose to see life’s little miracles as rewards for good behavior, and not just good luck. If that motivates us and others to do more good in the world, that would be the greatest miracle of all.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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