(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 7, 2009
20 Heshvan 5770
Biblical stories are often laconic, leaving the reader ample opportunity to read its stories from different perspectives with different messages. The first story in this week\’s haftarah is about a widow, the wife of a prophet, who has fallen on such hard times that her creditor wants to take her children into slavery as payment for her debt. These tragic circumstances lead her to plead with Elisha the prophet to save her from this perilous situation. This story can be read as a social commentary on the immoral social conditions found in King Ahab\’s kingdom. Only the merciful miracle of a prophet separates this poor woman from the social insensitivity of her environs.
On the other hand, this widow was the wife of a prophet, identified from very early times as both Obadiah the prophet and Obadiah the servant of King Ahab who saved the prophets of his day from the persecution of the king\’s wicked wife, Jezebel. This Obadiah, according to tradition, died defending these prophets, leaving his wife and children in dire straits. His good deeds should have left him a better fate. At the very least, his family should have been provided for. In this case, there is a tinge of criticism aimed at God.
A midrash found by modern scholars in a medieval manuscript some hundred and fifty years ago plays the story this way: \”The widow went to the cemetery to confront her dead husband. She put ashes on her forehead and said to him: \’I have come to collect your obligations to your children. I pleaded with you before you left, saying: \’Who will care for your holy children?\’ You said to me: \’God promised me\’ and now your children are to be taken by Ahab and Jezebel as slaves. The children cried out: \’Take us, father, take us.\’ At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, urging her to go to Elisha. When they came, Elisha noticed that they had just come from the cemetery. [It was then that Elisha performed for her the miracles.] (Adapted from Berliner and Hoffman, Otzar Tov; found in Otzar Hamidrashim 1, Eisenstein, p. 144 )
In this account, Elisha is not the agent of social critique. He is, instead, in a sense, rescuing God from the widow\’s challenge. The widow\’s husband had gone out to do God\’s bidding and lost his life in the process. She felt abandoned. The prophet stepped in to make sure that she was cared for. Perhaps Elisha is intended to be a paradigm for the role of each of us in the world. No one should ever feel abandoned, not by man and not by God. In this capacity, each of can play the role of Elisha.
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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