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This year, unusually, the regular (and my favorite) Haftara for Parashat Pinchas is read, as it falls before the Fast of Tamuz
Elijah traveled a day's journey (from Beer Sheba) into the desert, and he came to a juniper tree. He sat down under it, and he prayed to die… Suddenly he felt an angel touching him, who told him: "Come and eat!" (Kings I 19:4-5)
This Haftara focuses on the Prophet Elijah. Elijah, and his disciple, Elisha were active in the Northern Kingdom approximately a century after it had broken off with the Southern Kingdom, following the death of King Solomon. They both brought the word of G-d to His people during a period where the Ten Tribes were generally physically barred from traveling to the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Elijah worked alone - often as a one-man campaign - to establish His Will in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That was a very difficult thing to do, as the Kingdom of Israel was under the House of Omri, in the person of Ahab, Omri's son. Ahab not only followed in the evil steps of his predecessor kings, but also married the Phoenician Princess, Jezebel, and imposed her idolatrous Baal worship on the people of his kingdom.
Elijah's spectacular demonstration of G-d's power over Baal on Mount Carmel, his massacre of the priests of Baal, and his placing Israel back into G-d favor bringing an end to the drought, all gave his lonely campaign short-term success. But when Jezebel heard of the slaughter of the priests of her cult, Baal, she vowed to have Elijah put to death the very next day. The story of the Haftara is set in this very tense atmosphere of the struggle between a very determined and single-minded prophet of G-d, and the idolatrous foreign queen of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Elijah fled. He crossed the border into the Southern Kingdom of Judea - out of Jezebel's reach - and arrived at Beer Sheba. Not feeling entirely comfortable there, he moved deeper into the desert, rested under a juniper tree and, considering his work a failure, asked G-d to take his life. G-d sends an angel who supplied him with food, and whose consumption gives him the strength to continue the long journey to Mount Sinai - referred here as Mount Horeb. Settling down in a cave on Mount Sinai, G-d calls to him: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'
Elijah answers G-d: 'I have acted zealously for G-d… 'for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, destroyed Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to kill me as well' (19:10; also 19:14).
G-d then teaches Elijah a lesson. He tells him to stand on a mountain before Him. Elijah experienced a hurricane, and earthquake, and a fire, but G-d was in neither of those dramatic phenomena. Only afterwards, did he actually experience G-d - in the form of the kol demama daka - the 'still small voice'. The lesson may be seen to teach that a zealous messenger of G-d does not bring His word in wrath and fury, but quietly, diplomatically, meaningfully, having created the right atmosphere.
G-d's instructions to Elijah continued in that spirit. There were to be no more fireworks on Mount Carmel, but he had to carry on his zeal for his Creator's cause in a much more subtle, if no less effective manner. He was to effect spiritual reform in the Northern Kingdom by quiet diplomatic action behind the scenes. He would put the mechanism in action whereby Baal worship would be removed from the Israelites through not only religious power (in his anointing Elisha as his successor), but also through the secular power - by anointing Jehu as the future king who would, in the future, eventually launch a coup that would bring him to power, destroy the ruling House of Omri, and bring Baal-worship to an end (Kings II 10).
Elisha carried on the work of Elijah after his death. Like Elijah, he fought against the paganism of the rulers of the Northern Kingdom. But unlike him, he did not operate alone. He created an organized following - a college of prophets - and he worked with the secular establishment (King Ahab the son of Omri and those after him in that Northern Kingdom dynasty of Omri) to obtain the religious reforms that Elijah had demanded. These failed to be long lasting, and the persistence in adhering to the pagan culture led to the overthrow of the entire House of Omri. Jehu massacred King Ahab's royal house, 'and all his great men, and his kinsfolk, and his priests, until he left him none remaining.' (Kings II 10:11) Thus Ahab's seventy sons were decapitated and all the priests of Baal - the contemporary form of paganism - were assembled and slaughtered. As king, Jehu indeed temporarily restored the worship of G-d to the Northern Kingdom, but he soon found himself behaving in as arbitrary a manner as the House of Omri - and indeed virtually all the kings of Israel broke off with the worship of the Almighty sooner or later, right up to the capture and enforced exile of the Northern Kingdom under King Shalmanezzer V of the Assyrian Empire (720 BCE).
The Haftara tells the story of how Elijah fled from the murderous Jezebel's reach into the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and beyond, to Mount Horeb (Sinai). He went alone and rested under the 'rotem' (juniper?) tree, and asked for G-d to take his life. He then fell asleep under the tress and an angel came to feed him with baked cakes and a jar of water (19:6), which gave him the strength to continue for forty days to the 'mountain of G-d at Horeb' (19:8).
The first part of this story parallels Jonah's going away from the city of Nineveh, after the people of that city had repented. As the text states:
G-d placed a 'kikayon' (gourd?) plant, which grew over Jonah to shade… and alleviate his suffering… but the next day… G-d placed a worm, which attacked the gourd, which then withered up. The sun beat down on Jonah's head, and he became faint. He wished that he would die, saying: "I would rather die than go on living" (Jonah 4:6-8).
Both had displayed zeal. Elijah had openly rebelled against the idolatrous Ahab and Jezebel, proving his point by sending forces to execute the priests of Baal on the banks of the Kishon River as soon as the conditions were right (18:40). Whereupon Jezebel made it clear that she issued a warrant on Elijah himself, for arrest and execution (19:2).
Jonah had also been zealous, but in a different way. He finally carried out G-d's command to preach to the people of Nineveh, but he seemed to have been rather disappointed by his own success (Jonah 4:1). The reason for his discontent is not clear in the text. The Malbim explains that Jonah (in his zeal) did felt let down - the people of Nineveh had repented, but not to the degree of renouncing idolatry. As a prophet, Jonah felt aggrieved that the people of Nineveh - the capital of the Assyrian Empire - would, in the future, grow into a force large enough to impose its will on the entire region, carrying the Northern Kingdom into exile in the process. Though the Israelites would have deserved it, Jonah's zeal was offended that G-d should be lenient on Nineveh and make that idolatrous culture His means of exiling the Ten Tribes.
Both then showed zeal. Both then suffered the sun beating down on them in their travels, and both wished to die. But G-d treated them differently. He sent relief to Elijah - in the form of an angel, who supplied him with food, giving him the strength to continue for forty days to Mount Sinai. In contrast, Jonah seems to have been treated less generously. His conditions did not improve; they became worse. G-d not only did not send him an angel with food, but He had taken his shade away from him, and instead taught him a lesson, illustrating His concern for all humanity - including even those who 'did not know their right hand from their left' - meaning, according to the Malbim, people who could not distinguish between service of G-d and the idolatrous beliefs of the forces of astrology and nature.
Why, therefore, does G-d seem to have responded more generously to Elijah's sincere display of zeal than to Jonah's sincere zeal?
This issue may be responded to in the following way. Elijah's zeal was based on his distress in King Ahab having espoused Jezebel and allowed her to inculcate paganism into the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel - in the form of idolatrous Baal-worship. Elijah's zeal was a legitimate, praiseworthy form of zeal. Elijah had displayed G-d's power in the presence of the priests of Baal by a few words of prayer and bringing down the fire from Heaven. Yet Elijah, in his utter sincerity, had little to be pleased about. As he is recorded to have said later on, in the text of the Haftara (19:10, also 19:14), 'for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, destroyed Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to kill me as well'. As the Radak explains, Elijah was left alone in his mission to influence the Northern Kingdom to repent. The other Prophets of G-d were still in hiding from the lethal Jezebel, and they could not help him.
Thus G-d indicated His approval for Elijah's enthusiasm by initially receiving him with His hospitality - in the form of food - at once, and of such a nature as to sustain him for forty days in the wilderness. However, although Elijah's zeal was appropriate, there was another way of looking at the situation that G-d, later, pointed out to him in the form of the 'still small voice' at Mount Sinai (19:12).
My favorite explanation of the 'still small voice' that God communicated to Elijah comes from Jonathan Sacks ('Celebrating Life' p.74). He suggests that G-d was teaching Elijah the following vital principle in how to G-d to the people:
'The still, small voice - a sound you can only hear if you are listening - means that your trial (with the fire from Heaven) was based on error… You showed the prophets of Baal that I, G-d, am a greater power. Perhaps so, but that is not what I am. The idea that G-d is power is pagan. G-d does not impose Himself on His image, mankind. On the contrary, G-d - like a true parent - creates space for His children to grow. He is always there, but only if we seek Him. His word is ever present, but only if we listen. Otherwise we do not hear it at all.'
By contrast, Jonah's distress at G-d's acceptance of Nineveh's 'half measured' (Malbim) repentance was a less praiseworthy form of zeal. His prophetic revelation (Radak) that G-d accepted their repentance and did not carry out His decree against them (3:10) should have been the end of the matter. But Jonah went one step further than Elijah, and it was the wrong step. That was his wanting to impose his standards of required repentance, rather than G-d's, on the people of Nineveh. In doing so, his zeal and G-d's requirements from Nineveh were not the same. Jonah's passion took him outside of G-d's plan and expectations for Nineveh. And G-d's 'inhospitality' towards him was a strong hint of His disapproval… and a prelude to His final message conveying His satisfaction at the spiritual progress of the people of Nineveh even though it did not come up to the standard that He would have expected of the Israelites…
This distinction conveys an important value. Before rebuking, we must first consider what G-d expects of that person or society - in their respective situations. And then the form of rebuke should be directed at the root of the problem, even if it is not likely to bring spectacular results in the short term.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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