(I Kings 18:46-19:21)
July 23, 2005
Elijah\’s retreat into the desert was filled with angst. He was a defeated prophet. His mission, while initially successful, had not transformed Israel\’s religious life. The worship of Baal had not been eradicated. He was hounded and beleaguered, fleeing for his life from the wicked queen, Jezebel, who sought to avenge the deaths of her idolatrous prophets. Elijah was more than merely tired, hungry and thirsty. He was spiritually drained – a prophet who saw his mission as a failure – a man who despaired the continuation of his life. (See Targum Yonathon – verse 19:5.)
After being revived by an angel, Elijah began a forty day journey to Horeb, the mountain where Moses had met God. When Elijah reached Horeb, the word of the Lord came to him and asked him: \”Why are you here, Elijah?\” (Verse 9) \”He replied: \’I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.\” (Verse 10;14)
What was God\’s response to Elijah\’s declaration? \”The Lord said to him: \’Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet (tahtecha).\’\” (Verse 15) Professor U. Simon views God\’s response as a renewal of Elijah\’s prophetic role so that he will have the strength to carry out his remaining prophetic missions. (Kriyah Sifrutit Bamikra: Sipurei Neviim, p. 259)
One rabbinic tradition (Eretz Yisrael, 3rd century) treats God\’s response in verse 15 as a rejection of Elijah\’s role as prophet: \”Elijah insisted on the honor due to God, but did not insist on the honor due to the son (Israel)… the expression \”tahtecha – in your place\” can only mean that I (God) am not pleased with your service [since you have only bad things to say about My people Israel].\” (Mechilta d\’Rabbi Ishmael Bo Parsha 1, Horowitz Rabin ed. p. 4; see Rashi on verse 15) According to this passage, a prophet\’s role is not only to reprimand his people for their sins. He must also defend them when they are in trouble. This tradition regards Elijah as derelict in this role, requiring replacement.
Pirke d\’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 29 (Eretz Yisrael, 8th century) offers a similar approach. It understands Elijah\’s complaint that Israel has abrogated God\’s covenant (brit) as a protest that the people did not carry out \”brit milah – circumcision\”. God treats this complaint with rancor and as a result requires Elijah to be present at every brit milah to prove to him that the people of Israel are diligent about the observance of this mitzvah. This explains the origin of the custom of having a special chair at the circumcision ceremony known as \”kisei Eliahu – Elijah\’s chair\” which sometimes also serves as the chair in which the sandek – the one who hold the baby during the brit milah sits. (see Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim uMinhagim, p. 182)
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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