(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 15, 2003
Elisha, as a religious figure, is larger than life and his special stature is not lost on the Shunamite, a wealthy but childless woman. She and her husband decide to provide Elisha with food and shelter on his visits to their town and, in turn, Elisha feels obliged to reciprocate with a prophecy that the Shunamite will give birth to a son. This prophecy is realized. However, one day the child falls sick while visiting his father in the field and later that day dies in his mother’s arms. The Shunamite takes her dead son and places him on the bed set aside for Elisha’s visits to the town and closes the door to the room. She then travels to the Carmel to find Elisha in order to plead with him for the life of her beloved son.
When she meets up with Elisha, this dramatic tragedy takes an unusual turn. The Shunamite falls down at his feet to plead with him for the life of her son. Elisha, the prophet, is totally unaware of her plight. Only when he sees her does he become aware of her tragedy. What is his response? He sends his servant, Gehazzi, to use the prophet’s walking staff to revive the child. Gehazzi tries to bring the child back to life but is unsuccessful. Only then does Elisha, himself, go and revive the child.
Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen, the 19th century Lithuanian Talmudist and interpreter best known by the title of his book – Meshek Hochmah, finds an important religious message in this series of unusual events. He questions Elisha’s behavior in this episode. Elisha should have gone immediately and carried out the mission himself. Yet, he initially felt that his obligations were adequately fulfilled by sending his servant. He felt compelled to return the kindness of the Shunamite who fed him and provided him with shelter. He thought that he could accomplish this simply by sending his servant. The mission fails because Elisha did not give sufficiently of himself. This failure teaches Elisha an important religious lesson. People are not to be treated in such a utilitarian way. He must learn his lesson from the Shunamite, who gave of herself completely and selflessly. It was her faith in God and in Elisha that provides the him the strength to carry out the miracle. Only when he realized this truth did he succeed.
The hero of this story, according to the Meshek Hochmah, is the Shunamite. She teaches the prophet a valuable lesson in morality, human sensitivity and most important of all, how to relate to God.
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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