Haftarah Parshat Vayera
(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 3, 2012
18 Heshvan 5773
The tales of the prophets Elijah and Elisha largely relate stories of miracles carried out to save people faced with tragic situations. These prophets miraculously provide food for the indigent, announce the birth of children to the barren and revive those who die under heartrending circumstances. Their prophetic ministries, then, are characterized by their roles as miracle workers rather than as recipients of the divine word. This week’s haftarah recounts two such episodes, one where the prophet Elisha provides the means for a poverty stricken woman to save her children from slavery, while in the other he heralds the birth of a child to a barren woman and then subsequently revives the child when the child suddenly falls ill and dies.
What is one to make of these miracles? In the first story, a woman described as the widow of one of the disciples of the prophets has fallen into debt. In order to save her from her circumstances, Elisha has her collect vessels from her neighbors so that she might fill them from the single vessel of oil left in her possession. Once she has collected the vessels, he tells her: “Go in, shut the door behind you and your children, and pour [oil] into all those vessels, removing each one as it is filled.” (4:4) The woman did as Elisha bid her to do and as a result miraculously fills enough vessels to overcome her poverty and rescue her children.
Rashi notes that Elisha had the woman close the door before carrying out the miracle since “it is [more] honorable for miracles to happen privately.” Rashi’s remark is striking since we would expect the opposite to be true. The more public the miracle, the more remarkable!
Rabbeinu Nissim Gerondi (Spain, 14th century), in a remarkable drasha, discusses the nature of this miracle. He asserts that when it comes to the need for miracles, God prefers to operate within the natural order wherever possible. He asserts that God purposefully wants this miracle to be private and as close to the natural order as possible. (Drashot HaRan, Drashah 8, A. Feldman ed. p.129)
His remarks call to mind a very interesting debate which went on in rabbinic times over the nature of the miraculous. Is it the natural order which is miraculous and anything that breaks that order wreaks havoc (chaos) on that order? Or since God is capable of anything, is a miracle when God plunges His hand (as it were) into the natural order to alter things as He sees fit? Rebbeinu Nissim chose a middle path. God prefers the natural order and when He chooses to alter it, He hews as close to that order as possible.
This interpretation is very telling about the nature of theological speculation. When human beings write about God, they are attempting to fathom how God works. This process is ongoing and highly speculative and is only as good as it is insightful and helpful. In his interpretation, Rabbeinu Nissim wants to preserve stability and order in the world while maintaining God’s ability to act. In doing so, he may be saying two contradictory things from a human perspective but from his perspective God’s world could not exist without them.
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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