(2 Kings 7:3-20)
April 24, 2004
If there ever was a tragic figure, it is the government official who confronts the prophet Elisha in the verses which precede this week’s haftarah. In these introductory verses, Elisha declares the famine that has overcome the nation during the Syrian siege to be over. God would send relief to the beleaguered nation. The official questions God’s capacity to carry out this miracle: “‘Even if God were to make windows in the sky, could this come to pass?’ Elisha retorted: ‘You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.’” (verse 2) The official’s fate is sealed. At the end of the haftarah, we read: “Now the king had put the aide on whose arm he leaned in charge of the gate; and he was trampled to death in the gate by the people- just as the man of God had spoken… For when the man of God said to the king. ‘This time tomorrow two seah of barley shall sell at the gate of Samaria for a shekel,’ the aide answered the man of God and said, ‘Even if the Lord made windows in the sky, could this come to pass?’ And Elisha retorted, ‘You shall see it with you own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.’” (verses 17-19)
This story plays an interesting role in a discussion in the Talmud. The Mishnah spells out the parameters of proper belief on a number of issues which were theologically important to the sages. With regard to one of these beliefs, the Mishnah states: “These are those who have no place in the world to come: One who says that resurrection of the dead is not derived from the Torah,…” (M. Sanhedrin 11:1) This Mishnah prompts the Talmud to ask the question: ‘Why such a harsh punishment [for a seemingly minor infraction]? The answer to this question is brought in a baraita (a teaching from the period of the Mishnah): Since he denied the resurrection of the dead, therefore he shall have no share in the resurrection of the dead. The Talmud explains: For all of the measures of the Holy One Blessed be He are measure for measure [As proof for this assertion, the Talmud brings the following teaching.] As Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: From where in scripture do we learn that all of the measures of the Holy One Blessed be He are measure for measure? As it is written: “And Elisha said: ‘Hear the word of the Lord: At this time tomorrow…The aided answered: Even if the Lord made windows…Elisha retorted: ‘Behold you shall see it but not eat therefrom.’ And so it happened with him.. and he died.” (Sanhedrin 90a) The Talmud continues and concludes that the official died because of his remarks to Elisha.
Here too, one might inquire about whether the punishment was excessive, but what seems clear is that it is an example of measure for measure. Since the official denied God’s capabilities, he was denied the fruit of God’s miracle. Later sages, however, examine how this story is related to the question of denying resurrection of the dead. Rabbi Shmuel Edels (Maharsha – Poland 16th-17th century), asserts that this story presents an example of someone who denies God’s providence where it is clearly evident, how much more so would such a person deny God’s ultimate goodwill. Rabbi Meir Simcha from Dvinsk (Lithuania 19th-20th century) points out, in a similar manner, that one who denies the miraculous in the natural observable world will similarly deny the miraculous with regard to resurrection.
What resonates in both of these explanations is that faith and hope are crucial elements of Jewish religiosity. Without them life and miracles are impossible.
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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