(1 Kings 18:46-19:21)
July 19, 2008
16 Tammuz 5768
In the midrashic tradition, Elijah is often associated with Pinehas since both figures stood up as zealous defenders of God\’s dignity – Pinehas, standing up against the unbridled sexual immorality that swept through the camp under the influence of Zimri ben Salu and the Midianites; and Elijah, who stood up against the idolatry of the northern kingdom inspired by the queen, Jezebel. Elijah\’s zealotry is summed up in one very famous verse: \”I am moved by zeal for the Lord, 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.\” (19:10)
What covenant was Elijah defending? Most commentators assert that Elijah acted to defend the covenant made at Sinai. (See Rabbi David Kimche) Others noted that from the context, Elijah defended God through annihilating idolatry. (See Rabbi Joseph Kara) Rabbi David Kimche records a second opinion which he found in Pirke d\’Rabbi Eliezer. He claims that this book holds that the people of Israel had ceased to perform Brit Milah – circumcision, and that Elijah, on God\’s behalf, was remonstrating against this unforgiveable neglect.
This story bears closer attention: \”When the kingdom was divided, the kingdom of Ephraim prohibited its inhabitants from performing circumcision. Elijah stood up and became outraged, swearing to Heaven that no rain would fall. Jezebel heard this and demanded that Elijah be killed. Elijah began to pray to the Holy One Blessed be He. God replied: \’Are you better than your forefathers. When they were threatened, they fled and were saved. This teaches you that one who flees is saved.\’ So, Elijah fled from the land of Israel and was saved. God revealed Himself to Elijah and asked him: \’What are you doing here, Elijah?\’ Elijah replied: \’I have been jealous on Your behalf.\’ God answered: \’You are always being jealous on My behalf!\’ You were jealous on My behalf at Shittim regarding sexual immorality. [Here, the midrash is associating Pinehas and Elijah as if they are the same person.] And here, too, you are being jealous on My behalf. By your life, no Jew will do a brit milah that you will not see with your own eyes. From this time on, the Sages established that a special place of honor would be set aside for the \’Angel of the Covenant, as it is written: \’The angel of the covenant that you desire is already coming.\’ (Malachi 3:1)\” [This angel is associated with Elijah who ascended to heaven without dying.] (Adapted from Pirke d\’Rabbi Eliezer 29 end)
This midrash is interpreted two ways. One, like Kimche, sees this as an honor for Elijah who acted to defend the institution of brit milah. The other sees it as a criticism of Elijah, who because of his criticism of Israel for not performing brit milah will be obliged to witness Israel\’s loyalty to this important mitzvah for eternity. (Drisha on the Tur Y.D. 265 s.k. 25)
What is clear to all is how much the tradition values brit milah – circumcision. It is so important that God wants even his most loyal prophet to know how loyal the people of Israel are to this esteemed mitzvah.
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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