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Vayera 5768

Parshat Vayera
(2 Kings 4:1-37)
15 Heshvan 5768
October 27, 2007

The term \”prophet – navi\” denotes a number of different kinds of religious figures.

Samuel, the prophet, served as both a religious and political leader – a mouthpiece of God. During Samuel\’s tenure, there also existed bands (hevel, lahaqah) of prophets (mitnabim) who practiced some sort of religious ecstatic experiences. (See 1 Samuel 10:5; 19:20) Saul, who was later to become king, on a number of occasions joined in with these \”prophets\”. (Ibid. 10:12) Elijah and Elisha represent a third type of prophet. They were not political leaders, though at times, they meddled in politics. Their brand of religion blended the role of bearer of religious messages with that of miracle worker. (See Professor M. Greenberg, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought, pp. 129-133.)

Rav Soloveitchik (20th century USA) links the role of prophecy with the quality of \”hesed,\” roughly translated into English as \”lovingkindness\”. Basing himself on Maimonides, Soloveitchik asserts that \”hesed\” denotes \”excessive kindness\” – kindness beyond measure. \”Hesed\” implies extending oneself beyond one\’s closed, personal existence and sharing of one\’s inner self, energies and talents with others. \”Hesed\” is sharing and caring, going beyond one\’s self, sympathizing and empathizing.

This understanding allows us to distinguish between two different types of prophetic characters: \”mitnabim\” and the \”neviim\”. The first group, mentioned above, is identified by a reflexive verb, which represents a kind of self-indulgent prophecy. They aim at their own religious experience, their own ecstasy and perfection, but not beyond. The second kind of prophet aims beyond the self in order to build God\’s world beyond the narrow straights of self-fulfillment. The \”navi\” shares his world with others (See Soloveitchik, Min Hasaarah, pp. 172-175)

This later category characterizes the behavior of the prophet Elisha and the miraculous tales related in this week\’s haftarah. His empathy and caring was boundless and lacked self-indulgence. His miraculous acts should not be measured by their supernatural characteristics, which most certainly add color to the stories. Rather, his role as a prophet is most distinctive in his acts of care and concern for others, whether in providing for the widow and her orphans or in reviving the son of the Shunamite woman. These acts mark him as a prophet.

This religious distinction also has something to say about modern religious experience. Religious people must be aware that it is possible to be quite \”religious\” and totally narcissistic and self indulgent in one\’s piety. One must aim to be like Elisha whose piety extended beyond the self, sharing concern for others, community building instead of self-serving.

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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