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Pinhas 5771

Haftarah Parshat Pinchas
(1 Kings 18:46-19:21)
July 16, 2011
14 Tammuz 5771

Elijah was an audacious prophet. He stood up to power, challenging the king and queen when he saw fit and taking up the cudgels of defending God against the onslaught of idolatrous practice when he thought it necessary. His was not a tranquil life of contemplation. He was a fire brand who would never see peace because he was forever fighting the world’s wrongs on God’s behalf. It is no wonder then that when faced with Queen Jezebel’s threat to harm him, Elijah fled to the desert. There, Elijah sunk into despair, pleading with God to take his life. In the midst of Elijah’s despair, God confronts him with a searing question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9)

The medieval commentators (Rashi, Rabbi David Kimche) see this question as a means for God to open up a serious dialogue with the prophet. Elijah’s reply to this question is telling: “And he (Elijah) replied: ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, only I, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (19:10)

Here, Elijah does seem so different from Moses in moments of desperation where the burden of leadership weighed heavily on his shoulders. An early midrash, moves the discussion in a different direction: “You find that there are three different kinds of prophets – one who insists on the honor of the Father (God) and the son (Israel); one who insists on the honor of the Father but not on the honor of the son; and one who insists on the honor of the son but not on the honor of the Father. Elijah was the prophet who insisted on the honor of the father but not on that of the son, as it is said: ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts’. And therefore, what is said regarding him? ‘And the Lord said to him (Elijah): Go back by the way you came and on to the wilderness of Damascus…and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-Meholah as prophet in your place.” (19:15-16) The expression ‘in your place’ implies that I (God) was not pleased with your prophecy.” (adapted from Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Pisha 1 Horowitz Rabin ed. p. 4)

A later midrash elaborates: “He should have said before God: ‘Master of the world, they are your children, sons of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, who carried out your will in Your world. He did not do this. Instead, he said: ‘I am very jealous…’ The Holy one blessed be He began to say to him words of consolation. He said: “When I descended to give the Torah to Israel, only Ministering Angels who wanted to do good for them accompanied Me. [This was to impress upon Elijah that God is concerned with His subjects. God, [however], waited three hours for him to change his state of mind but Elijah still maintained his righteous anger toward the people, so God had him anoint Elisha in his stead.” (adapted from Yalkut Shimoni 1 Kings Siman 247)

Clearly, the message of these midrashim is that the function of a prophet or leader is not just to stand up for God’s dignity. The dignity of God’s subjects is at least as important to God. Elijah, who suffered only for God’s indignation was ultimately found wanting on this account and as a consequence deserved to be replaced. The message seems to be that God cares more for the welfare of His creatures than He does for Himself.

About This Commentary

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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