Haftarah Parshat Vayera
(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 12, 2011
15 Heshvan 5772
Elisha was the epitome of the prophet miracle worker. Despite this status, he does not seem to have been one for fanfare. He seems to have been more a behind the scenes sort of prophet. In the first miracle story in this week’s haftarah, the miracle of the oil vessels, the miracle was carried out through following his advice. He was not even present. The haftarah’s other story about a woman from the town of Shunem recounts an episode where Elisha’s magnanimity is on display. In that story, a well-to-do woman and her husband provide housing for Elisha, the itinerant prophet. Elisha offers to perform a miracle for the woman in his gratitude. Elisha inquires about the woman’s needs. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, notes that the woman is without child. Elisha promises the woman that in a year’s time she will have a child. The miracle comes true and the woman has a son but the story is not without its dark moments.
Sometime later, when the child had grown, he ventured out to visit his father in the field. While there, the boy became ill. He was brought home and died there in his mother’s arms. The grief stricken Shunamite placed the boy on the bed reserved for Elisha, closed the door and journeyed out to apprise Elisha of this dire situation. When she reached Elisha and informed him of the tragedy, his immediate course of action was to send his servant, Gehazi, armed with the prophet’s staff to go to revive the boy: “Gird your loins, and take my staff in your hands and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him; and if anyone greets you, do not answer him. And place my staff on the face of the boy.” (4:29) Gehazi did as he was bidden, but his actions were ineffective: “Gehazi had gone on before them and had placed the staff on the boy’s face but there was no sound or response.” (4:31)
The biblical story offers no explanation for this lack of success. Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer (9th century Eretz Yisrael) offers an anecdotal explanation: “[Elisha said to Gehazi]: ‘Don’t say anything until you arrive and put the staff on the face of the boy and revive him.’ But there was playfulness in Gehazi’s eyes and to everyone he met he would say: ‘Can you believe it. This staff can revive the dead.’ This is why his agency did not work.” (chapter 33) In the end, the child was revived only when Elisha came and carried out the miracle himself.
The difference between Elisha’s manners and those of Gehazi, as presented in this midrash, is telling. Gehazi’s actions turned his duties into a self-serving extravaganza. His behavior makes him the perfect foil for Elisha’s actions, which were performed quietly and without fanfare.