October 24, 2009
6 Heshvan 5770
Isaiah prophesies that the rebuilt Jerusalem will be built of precious gems – a virtual dream city of tremendous splendor – a city of unsurpassed beauty: \”Unhappy and storm-tossed one, uncomforted! I will lay carbuncles as your building stones and make your foundation of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems.\” (55:11-12)
Such a vision was the stuff of miracles and quite hard to imagine so it is not surprising that the sages afforded themselves stories to capture the miraculous nature of this glorious future: \”Rabbi Joshua stood with Elijah (the prophet) of blessed memory. He said to him: \’Will my lord not show me these stones [mentioned in the verses of this vision]? Elijah responded: \’Yes\’. He showed them to him by way of a miracle. There was ship sailing in the Great Sea. On board all of the passengers were gentiles except for one Jewish child. A terrible storm came upon the ship at sea. Whereupon, Elijah appeared to the boy and said to him: \’Go on a mission for me to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and show him these precious stones and I shall save the ship on behalf of your merit. The boy hesitated. He said: \’But Rabbi Joshua is the greatest man of the generation. Why should he believe the likes of me?\’ Elijah answered: \’Indeed, but he is very humble, and he will believe you. However, when you show him the stones, do not show them to him in front of other people. Take him to a cave that is three miles from Lod and show him the stones there.\’ The miracle occurred and the ship was saved. The boy went to Lod and found Rabbi Joshua in a session of the great court. He said to him: \’My lord, I have something private to say to you.\’ Rabbi Joshua got up and because of his humility followed him for three miles and never asked him: \’What do you want of me?\’ When they arrived at the cave, the boy said to him: \’These are the stones [that you asked Elijah about.] When he saw them, he was dazzled by their light and dropped them to the ground and they were buried.\” (adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 18:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 296-7)
Isaiah\’s prophecy stretches the imagination. It is no surprise, then, that the stories brought to give it perspective should also be fantastic. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi cannot get his head around what Jerusalem will look like so he appeals to the Jewish arbiter of the miraculous, Elijah. Rabbi Joshua is shown what he wants to see but only after a miraculous mission where a young boy promises Elijah that he will carry out his mission. In the process, people\’s lives are saved. Rabbi Joshua, a truly great man, gets what he wants but only because he is humble. When his wish is granted, it is only for a moment because the miraculous light cast off by the stones causes him to drop them so that they again become hidden.
The rebuilt Jerusalem is a miraculous but potentially elusive phenomenon. It requires the faith and tenacity of the boy willing to carry out Elijah\’s mission despite all odds and the humility of Rabbi Joshua, who does not let his ego get in the way of that which is ultimately important. It is the product of a miracle, but like so many miracles, there is always the potential that the miracle might fall through our hands if we are not careful.
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. The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus . Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: