(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 15, 2008
17 Heshvan 5769
The first part of this week\’s haftarah focuses on the story of a woman, the widow of a prophet, who was in desperate financial straits. Her creditors abounded and wanted to take her children as payment for her debts. She appealed to the prophet and miracle worker Elisha for help. He asked her what she had in the house. She told him that all that remained in her house was a cruise of oil. He told her to gather as many vessels as she could find, to close the door and proceed to pour oil into the vessels that she had gathered. When she did as she was bidden, there was enough oil miraculously to fill all of the vessels that she had gathered: \”When the vessels were full, she said to her son, \’Bring me another vessel.\’ He answered her, \’There are no other vessels\’; and the oil stopped (vayaamod hashemen). She came and told the man of God, and he said, \’Go sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your children can live on the rest (uvanaich teehyee benotar).\” (4:6-7)
A number of years ago (5766), I presented a rabbinic story where sages interpreted this passage as a parting drashah before taking leave of their sage teacher. There I used this episode to illustrate an important lesson in rabbinic etiquette. One never departs from one\’s teacher without words of Torah. I would like to present this same story again and focus this time on the content of the midrash itself. The sages were perplexed by the unusual words the woman used to state that the oil had ceased to flow. Also, they wondered why the woman needed advice on what to do next, since it seemed to them fairly obvious that she should go out and sell the oil to pay her debt.
The following midrash comes to answer these questions: Rabbi Yitchak and Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yudan the Ger went to hear Torah from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. When they were about to take leave from him, they went to ask him for permission to depart. Their departure was delayed a day, so they went again to depart from him… [Upon taking leave, he offered this interpretation.] \’And the oil rose\’ – this means that the price of oil shot up and consequently the woman needed to return to the prophet for advice on whether to sell the oil or not. This blessing was greater than the first blessing [since the first blessing provided sufficient oil for her to prevent her children from being sold into slavery]. [From the prophet\’s second message:] \’and you and your children can live (tehyee) on the rest\’ [we learn that the oil would be sufficient to provide for the widow and her children] until the resurrection of the dead (tehiyat hameitim). (Adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 35:3)
In these days of financial uncertainty, this story has special meaning. The sages infer from the verb \”ayin. mem, dalet\” that the price of oil as a commodity had risen from its previous low. The woman was seeking from the prophet market advice: was now the right time to sell the oil or should she hold onto it until the price rose further. According to the rabbinically embellished recasting of the story, the prophet advised her that now was the right time to sell the oil. The profits would suffice to support her and her children.
It is amazing how precarious our lives are and how much is not in our hands. The prophet offered the woman the wisdom to know that greed can often lead to disaster. It is sometimes worthwhile to know when enough is enough and not be misled by an unbridled appetite. Those who are overcome can sometimes destroy not only themselves but those around them as well.
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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