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A prophet's widow cried out to Elisha: 'My husband is dead… and his creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.'
Elisha said to her: 'What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house.'
She replied: 'Your maidservant has nothing at home at all, except a jug of oil.' (Kings II 4:1-2)
This Haftara focuses on the Prophet Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. Both 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 its people during a period where the Ten Tribes were generally physically barred from traveling to the First Temple in Jerusalem.
The narrative of the Haftara concerns a poor widow who complained to Elisha that she has no money to pay her debts, and the creditors were about to take her two sons as slaves. The only object of value that she possessed was a jug with oil in it. Elisha the Prophet requested that the widow should bring as many empty jugs as she could. Elisha caused the original small amount of oil to become a not-stop flow - filling all the empty jugs. By selling the oil she was able to repay her debts and still have money to live on. The second episode in the Haftara brings the story of the woman from Shunem (a town in northwest Israel). Like Sarah, she had everything, but no children. Elisha shows gratitude for her hospitality by blessing her with a son, as G-d blessed Sarah with a son. When that tiny child died suddenly, Elisha managed to miraculously bring him back to life.
Elisha had 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 their persistence in adhering to the pagan culture led to the overthrow of the entire House of Omri. Jehu massacred 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 their capture and enforced exile under King Shalmanezzer V of the Assyrian Empire (720 BCE).
The first story of the jug of oil has the following components: a poor person, a sole jug of oil, and mountain of debts - failure to repay would ensure that her two sons would be taken into slavery. A miracle happened: a great blessing fell onto that small quantity of oil, and it grew into such a quantity that it was sold for more than the money owed.
Many people who came to Israel with the express purpose of living in the Holy Land have made the following observation: 'It has never been easy to make a living here - but somehow we always managed to get by'. Indeed, when I look over my own income and compare it with the expenditures, I cannot understand how it is that we as a family have kept our heads above water at all. The story of the Shunamite woman (and its parallel in Kings I: 17 with the story of Elijah and the woman of Zarfat) illustrates that so long as a person's needs and motives are genuine, G-d has the means and will to make small quantities go a very long way.
Two personal anecdotes - one in England (1974) and one, much later in Israel (1991) illustrate that observation.
I was a Yeshiva student. Some years previously my first class Bar-Mitzva tefillin parted company with their too absent-minded owner, and I had the use of a second pair that, though certified and checked as kasher, was not of the highest quality. As a serious Yeshiva student, I wanted the best tefillin money could buy, made according to the strictest Halachic criteria. At the time, my family had recently moved to another city and the domestic financial situation was strained. I nevertheless contacted the scribe the Yeshiva recommended and the price, though very reasonable, was way out of my personal budget. Despite the home financial situation, I mentioned my interest in the tefillin and quoted the price in my weekly Friday letter home. My father wrote back with the following reply:
'As to the tefillin… However, I had an unexpected windfall last week and you are as entitled to it as anyone else. Please go ahead and order the tefillin.'
Nearly twenty years later I moved to Israel. Renting a room in a shared apartment, I found work - by a miracle - teaching English at Tel Aviv University. I started near the beginning of August, but the salary was not due to be paid until the start of October. By the early days of September my liquid resources were running out. I remember leaving the 480 bus at the Jerusalem terminal with a disposable income of precisely one five-shekel coin. I had to brace myself for something I had never done before - call on a friend and ask him to lend me some cash.
I walked to his house in Romema, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. On seeing me, he exclaimed:
"Where have you been? I have been trying to get you all day! We need you!"
My friend was a kollel man. One of his colleagues - a Sephardi in origin - had suddenly been offered a rabbinical post outside Israel. One of his duties was to lead the services on Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur - according to the Ashkenazi rites and tunes. He would be delighted to pay for someone to coach him - at once - as he was leaving the country next week just before the Festivals. Would I give him some intensive emergency tuition?
I agreed - so long as he paid the first installment in advance.
I used that five-shekel coin for my bus fare to Ramot. Within three hours, he had already completed his first lesson, and the cash for the first installment on his course was in my pocket!
Like in the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman, there was need in both cases. In the first, there was the genuine desire to fulfill the daily mitzvah of tefillin to the highest possible standard. In the second, keeping body and soul together in settling down in the Holy Land was of paramount importance. In both cases effort was made 'crying out to Elisha' - in the first, to visit the scribe, even though I had no means of raising the cash; and in the second, I swallowed my pride and prepared to ask for a loan. In both cases there was 'something on which the blessing could fall' - not a jug of oil, but cash for the stamp for the letter home; and a five-shekel coin. And like the jug of oil, the fruits of the stamp and the five shekel coin multiplied and multiplied and in both cases provided the sums of money necessary...
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.
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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