Haftarah Parshat Vayera (2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 19, 2016 / 18 Heshvan 5777
Biblical stories are often laconic, leaving the reader to imagine the details. The rabbinic sages lived in a very different environment when it came to storytelling. It seemed inconceivable to them for major characters to be left unidentified and for loose ends in a story not to be resolved. It is for this reason that the first story in this week’s haftarah (4:1-7) was so provocative for them. It involved the widow of an unidentified prophet who was deeply in debt. Her anonymous creditor was about to enslave her children as payment for the debt. The prophet Elisha arranged for a miracle to pay off her debt and to save her children but what about the fate of the “sinful” creditor?
Who was the widow’s husband? Who was the creditor? What exactly was his sin and was he ever made answerable for his sin? The following midrash comes to answer these questions by creating a subplot to the story: “Who was the creditor? Yehoram, son of [the wicked king] Ahab who loaned money on interest (which is biblically prohibited) to Ovadiah, [the servant of King Ahab], who, in turn, used the money to feed the prophets who were hiding from Jezebel, Ahab’s evil wife, who sought to kill them. It was Ovadiah who was the husband of the widow who was now being oppressed by Yehoram. The Holy One Blessed be He asked: ‘And what was Yehoram’s fate?’ ‘And Yehu bent the bow in his hand and struck Yeroham between the shoulders and the arrow came out through his heart and he collapsed in his chariot.’ (2 Kings 9:24) This was his punishment for taking money on interest from the widow.” (Adapted from Rabbi David Kimche’s rendering of a midrash from Tanhuma Mishpatim 9)
This midrash has tied up all the loose ends. It has identified both hero and villain, justified Yehoram the villain’s death and, from its perspective, settled a moral score. It views as invidious the actions of the king’s son who it asserts used his position to take advantage of the goodness of a heroic figure, Ovadiah, and his impoverished widow. Nothing could be meaner or more pathetic. And nothing could be more worthy of comeuppance. Consequently, the midrash ensures that Yehoram got what he deserved.
As the midrash would have it happen, then, the downtrodden righteous were miraculously cared for and the oppressor punished. If only real life were so simple. At the very least, perhaps, this retelling of this miraculous story should inspire us to do what is right.
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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