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Vayera 5767

Parshat Vayera
(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 11, 2006

This week\’s haftarah contains two miraculous episodes in which Elisha, Elijah\’s protégé, saved hapless victims from tragic circumstances. In the first story, Elisha saved a poverty stricken woman from having to sell her children into slavery to settle her debts. This woman, who remains anonymous in the biblical story, becomes a heroic figure in a midrash that will be the focus of our studies.

This midrash focuses on the first verse of the haftarah: \”A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: \’Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered the Lord.\’\” (verse 1) However, this midrash takes this verse totally out of its original context and instead reads it as part of the unrelated story which precedes it in the book of Kings. This midrash is based on a method of interpretation known as \”simihat parshiyot – the juxtaposition of passages\” which allows the interpreter to interpret two unrelated passages in close physical proximity to each other in the biblical text as if they were indeed related, with surprising results.

The previous passage (3:24-27) relates the story of the Moabite king, Mesha, whose unsuccessful battles against the army of Judah, led him to sacrifice his only son to his deity in the hope that it would bring him success in battle. After recording this event, the Bible comments: \”A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to their own land.\” (verse 27) The combination of this verse and the preceding events troubled the sages and required explanation. The following midrash used the opening verse of our haftarah to resolve this problem: Rabbi Nehuniah ben Hakaneh says: \’Righteousness raises a people to honor\” refers to Israel, [the second half of the verse:] \”lovingkindness is a disgrace to any nation\” is interpreted to mean that the acts of lovingkindness done by the other nations of the world disgrace Israel.\’ (See Proverbs 14:34) From whom do we learn the truth of this interpretation? We learn it from Mesha, king of Moab. What did he do? He gathered all of his astrologers and asked them: When I make war on any other nation, I defeat them. Why is it that when I make war on the Jews, they defeat me? They answered him: [They defeat you because] of the merits of one of their ancestors. Mesha asked: \’Who is this ancestor?\’ They said: \’His name was Abraham.\’ Mesha asked once again: \’What did he do?\’ They responded: \’An only son was given to him when he was a hundred years old and nevertheless he offered him up as a sacrifice.\’ He asked: \’Did he really sacrifice him?\’ They answered: \’No.\’ Mesha said: \’Well if he didn\’t sacrifice him and still miracles were done for him, if he really would have sacrificed him, how much more so! Now, I have an only son who in the future will become king in my stead. If I offer him as a sacrifice to my deity, perhaps miracles will be performed for me. He offered him up. Afterwards, Scripture says: \’A great wrath came upon Israel.\’ Why should Israel be punished if a foreign king offers his son as a sacrifice to a foreign deity? The Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel: \’My children, the nations of the world don\’t recognize My strength and so rebel against Me, but you who recognize My strength, still rebel against Me. [This explains how the nations embarrass Israel.] Said Rabbi Mana: \’Were it not for the merit of the wife of Ovadiah (the woman in our story), Israel would have been destroyed at that very moment. What did she do? She pronounced her recognition of God: \’A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: \’Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered the Lord.\’ (adapted and abridged from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 2:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 21-3)

Rabbi Mana uses this \”smichat parshiyot\” to illustrate that every one of us, even the person in the most humble of circumstances, has the potential to rescue not only Israel through their actions and beliefs but possibly even the world.

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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