(II Kings 4:42-5:19)
April 5, 2003
The haftarah consists of two miraculous tales performed by the prophet Elisha. In the first tale, a man comes and brings a gift to Elisha: “A man came from Baal-shalishah and he brought the man of God [Elisha] some bread of the first reaping – twenty loaves of barley bread and some fresh grain on the stalk. (2 Kings 4:42) In turn, Elisha tells his servant to go and feed this food to a crowd of people. The servant is taken aback since this gift consisted of only a small amount of food, but Elisha insists. Miraculously, this small quantity of food proves enough to feed a large mass of people.
This episode is one of a number of stories in which Elijah and his disciple Elisha perform providential acts showing God’s concern for the masses. In all of these acts, the prophets act as benevolent leaders of the people, who care for the needy while expressing little concern for themselves. In this story, a man provides Elisha with a gift and Elisha’s immediate response is to share the gift with the needy. Contrast this story with following story from the Talmud:
“A man brought before Rav Anan a basket of small fish. Rav Anan asked the man: ‘What is your business here?’ The man replied: ‘My case is pending before you.’ Rav Anan refused to take the gift from the man and also disqualified himself from serving as a judge in the man’s case. The man said: ‘I do not want you to adjudicate my case, but at least accept my gift. If you don’t accept it, you will keep me from offering my first fruits, as it is taught: ‘And a man from Baal-shalisha brought to the man of God some bread of the first reaping, twenty loaves of barley bread and some fresh grain on the stalk.’ Is it possible that Elisha accepted bread of the first reaping [which is meant exclusively for priests]? Instead, it must mean that this gift was meant for him because he was a sage in a manner similar to first fruits.’ Rav Anan replied: ‘I had not intended to accept your gift but you have convinced me to take it.’ Thereupon Rav Anan sent the man to Rav Nahman with a message: ‘Will you try this man, for I am disqualified from acting as a judge for him.’ Rav Nahman thought, ‘[The reason that Rav Anan won’t judge his case must be because] he is Rav Anan’s relative.’ An orphan’s case was then in progress in the court of Rav Nahman. Rav Nahman reflected: ‘It is a positive commandment to judge an orphan’s case and it is a positive commandment to show respect to the Torah [since Rav Anan was a sage]. The command to honor the Torah must take precedent over the case of the orphan, so he set aside the case of the orphan. When the case came opened, Rav Nahman treated the litigant with undue respect [because he thought he was related to Rav Anan]. The other party to the case was nonplused by this unusual attention and could no longer present his case. Because of this miscarriage of justice, the prophet Elijah who had been a frequent visitor of Rav Anan throughout the years providing him with Divine revelations, now stayed away from him until he did a great act of contrition. (adapted from Ketubot 105b-106a)
This story uses the verse from our haftarah, perhaps to contrast between Rav Anan’s behavior and that of Elisha. The behavior of Elisha, which is totally selfless, prompts a miracle. The behavior of Rav Anan, albeit innocent, causes a series of judicial improprieties, proving that even a hint of malfeasance can have awful consequences. This episode is one a series of stories, used by the Talmud, to illustrate the evils of bribery. The rabbis wanted this story to serve as a warning to all of us to stay far away from the least bit of impropriety.
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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