Tuesday, July 31, 2007

בְּעִתָּהּ אֲחִישֶׁנָּה

Appropriately enough for the Seven Weeks of Consolation, feel free to be inspired by reading one of the later Haftarot of Nehhama that we'll get to in a few weeks, Yesha‘yahu 60.

קומי אורי, כי בא אורך ... אני ה', בעתה אחישנה

Arise, shine, for your light has come ...
... I am God — when the time comes, I will rush it.

Remember what I was saying about having a few more months to work through my ambivalent feelings towards semikha, figure out if I really want to go for it, and if yes, where I would go?

Uhm, well, uh... yeah.

class of 5770


Now I guess the question is, should I change the name of this blog to The Study Hall of the Goblin King?

Monday, July 30, 2007

What Happens in Hharan,
Has Wider Relevance

Today is T"u b’Av.

While there are many reasons given for the significance of this minor holiday, the one that stands out the most in the popular consciousnesss is the image of the daughters of Jerusalem dancing in the vineyards, and singing (according to some accounts)
שקר החן והבל היופי \ אשה יראת ה' היא תתהלל
grace is false, and beauty is fleeting —
the one who should truly be praised is a woman in awe of God

Grace and beauty, physical attraction — these are all good things. Very good things. It's hard to have a relationship with someone if you can't stand to look at them or hear their voice. But to build a truly deep and meaningful relationship, you need to go beyond them, to the qualities that really represent who the other person is. Beauty is important — but in the grand scheme of things, it can be a distraction.

Back in November 2006, the week of Parashat Vayeitzei’, I wrote about how What Happens in Hharan, Stays in Hharan.

I explained that a close reading of the story of Ya‘aqov's marriage to Lei’a reveals how Lavan was able to trick him into marrying Lei’a instead of Rahheil — Lavan first made a משתה, a drinking party, and only afterwards brought the wrong sister to Ya‘aqov. Unlike our weddings, where the ceremony occurs first and only then do you have the party/reception, Lavan, in his bid to out-trickster Ya‘aqov for the title of Greatest Human Trickster in the Tanakh, made the drinking first, in order to dull Ya‘aqov's senses enough so that he could spend his wedding night with the wrong woman and not even notice until it was too late.

Lavan took wine — which is supposed to be something good, something that enhances the experience, that turns a simple gathering into a celebration — and used it to distract Ya‘aqov from what was really important.

Just as in relationships with other people there are factors that should serve as enhancements to what's really important, but can become distracting if they are over-emphasized or misused, the same holds true when it comes to relationships with God.

Moments of religious ecstasy are important — I hope that everyone has some such experience at least once in their life. When we expand out of ourselves, and feel an enveloping sense of connection or unification with God, with the universe, with עם ישראל or with all of humanity —
or as Kim Stanley Robinson put it,
The divine is like rain striking the earth, and all our efforts at godliness are therefore muddy — all but those few seconds of complete inundation, the moments that mystics describe, when we are nothing but rain...
— we can re-energize our commitment and our sense of purpose, and take that spiritual high, and use it to shape the way we live our lives.

The danger, though, is when those peaks of connection, those instances of religious ecstasy, overshadow what's really important.

We're supposed to do God's work in this world — spreading compassion and building just, moral and kind societies. And we need to do this work with open eyes and a clear mind, because this is our job on Earth; it's the most weighty and serious job there is.

And everyone knows that you don't operate heavy machinery while under the influence.

(time of posting = time this devar tora was given over orally in RL)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No Qinot for the Hitnatqut

It's always a tragedy when people are thrown out of their homes.

As a friend of mine said two years ago at the beginning of the summer, "What's wrong with us? We're bulldozing houses in ענתות, the hometown of the Prophet Yirmeyahu, and kicking out all the settlers from עזה?"

When Jews are disconnected from our Land — The Land — it hurts even more.


Shalman’eser did not invade Gaza and starve them out for three years.

Nevukhadnetzar did not have the leaders of each settlement arrested, dragged away, and executed.

Vespasian and Titus did not beseige Gaza, crucify tens of thousands of attempted escapees, slaughter between hundreds of thousands to more than a million men, women, and children, and sell tens of thousands of survivors off to be slaves.

Popes and Kings did not burn their sefarim, forcibly convert them, and then torture and kill them for 'backsliding'.

No one came into Gaza, forced the inhabitants to dig their own graves, and then slaughtered them en masse over the open pits. No one shoved them into overcrowded, dirty ghettos, so that they would die of disease and starvation. No one forced them to work as slaves until they were too weak to be worth leaving alive. No one starved them, burned them, beat them, shot them, asphyxiated them or otherwise massacred them on an inhumanly absurd scale of death.

So, no.

I will not say lamentation poems for Gush Qatif on Tish‘a b’Av.

I will not compare their dislocation to true suffering and death.

I will not equate it to murder, torture, and genocide.

Pick some other method of remembrance.

Not this.

Monday, July 23, 2007

RWAC Talks Back To God

As part of my belief that God is a trickster deity, I believe that God throws challenges our way not so that we will put up and shut up and just try and make it through, but so that we will fight back and challenge the righteousness of the universe. It's our job to stand up to God, as God's contract-mates, and say what in Your world do You think You're doing?

In that spirit, the Rabbi Without A Cause does not go softly into the burning night.

Something to think about, while sitting on the floor.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Not Quite Gematriya

in case you were wondering...



but not quite



this has been another gratuitous post brought to you by the goblin king... if you came here looking for torah because noyam sent you, don't feel disappointed. just scroll down...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eight Facts Meme

Yes, my friends, I've been tagged with the Eight Facts About You meme. Let's, uh, just get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The Rules:

Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves.The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged.


Growing up, stegosaurus was never my favorite dinosaur.


Dinosaurs? What? Oh yeah, until I was in like 6th grade or so, I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up.


I recently started riding my bicycle again. On Sunday I rode across the GWB and back, and then down to the Upper West Side and back. On Monday I biked down to Teaneck... but I didn't bike back, because there's a steep rise from about 50 feet above sea level in Teaneck to 300 feet above sea level at the top of the Palisades. So I got a ride back up to Fort Lee and biked back across the bridge into Manhattan.


Although I can't stand many 'normal' foods, such as cucumber, tomatoes, and eggplant, I experiment with what some people consider strange combinations, such as diced cheddar cheese in applesauce, chulent and chocolate cake, and putting cocoa powder in chili cholent.


"Good shabbos" in Irish is Sabóid shona duit [=more or less 'sah-bawdj hunna ditch'] (to one person) or Sabóid shona daoibh [='...deev'] (to many people). Or you could conceivably just say Seabbath seálóm.


I prefer baggy pants. They're more comfortable, and more tzniusdic. But they don't go so well with a tie and a jacket.


Once upon a time, some friends and I were in a car accident at the intersection of interstates 80 and 280 in New Jersey. We had to wait at the tow truck place in Parsippany, NJ, for a special tow truck to come and bring the car back to Brooklyn.
The friend whose car it was was crying on her cellphone to her parents in Hebrew, because they're Israeli, and when she hung up, the guy who runs the tow truck place asked her if she was speaking Hebrew. It turns out that he once dated a woman in Brooklyn, and so he thought the language souded familiar.
Then he asked my friend if she's Jewish, and she said "uh, yes..." not quite sure where this was going. And then he looked around at the rest of us, and asked if we're all Jewish too, to which the answer was also "yes..."
Then he looked at me. I was wearing a baseball cap or something. He then said, "But you're not Jewish, right? You look like a redneck!"
And that's how a tow truck guy in Parsippany, NJ, dubbed me a redneck.
And inspired me to go out and buy camouflage-colored earmuffs.


I count on my fingers in binary. It's very convenient to be able to count up to 31 on one hand instead of being limited to just 5.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Asher Levy: American Jewish Hero

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Killing People: A Matot-Mas‘ei DvarTorah

(as given by me at shalashudiss yesterday)

This Last week's double parsha begins began, after a short discussion of vows, with the War Against Midyan. God told Moshe to avenge the Israelites on the Midyanites for what the people of Midyan did when they teamed up with Mo’av and Bil‘am a few parshas ago in order to harm Beney Yisra’eil. And so Moshe commands the people to exact God's vengeance on their enemy, and they go out to do battle.

They go out to war and they kill all the men, and drag the women and children back to the encampment, along with all of their stuff. When they arrive, though, Moshe was enraged, and yelled at the leaders of the army — "you kept the females alive?!" And so they then go on to kill all the adult women and the little boys.

When I read this story, I was literally nauseous. And all the fancy explanations, all the highfalutin' apologetics, flew out the window. Because this is human life we're talking about. And the only explanation that still stood at the end was that God must know what God is doing. If you believe that God creates the world, weaves history, inspects hearts and minds, then you have to trust that God knows what needs to be done. And that Moshe, who talked directly to God — although he did make a few mistakes in his career — can be trusted to know what God wants.

Take that image, that queasy feeling, put it aside.

In the second half of the double parsha, in Mas‘ey, there's another discussion of killing — the laws of premeditated and accidental homicide. God tells Moshe to appoint cities of refuge, so that a murderer who took a life unintentionally, can flee there. The term used for the accidental killer is רוצח מכה נפש בשגגה. One more time is the term מכה used — during the process of judgement between the killer and the victim's blood-avenger. Every other time the killer is mentioned, though, the term used is רוצח. Murderer. The community will save the רוצח... But if the רוצח leaves the city of refuge... If the blood-avenger murders the רוצח... The רוצח may return to his territory...

The prototypical example of a רוצח בשגגה is someone swinging an axe. They're cutting wood, and somehow don't pay attention to the fact that the axe is broken, or weak — and in the process of swinging the axe, the axe head flies off the handle and chops someone's head off. The killer isn't an 'accidental killer' — the Torah only calls them that one and a half times — but an unintentional murderer. You don't just get off because "too bad, accidents happen." If you kill someone, even if you didn't mean it, you're a murderer. A רוצח. Human life is just that important. It's not something that you can play around with, not something that you can get out of simply because you didn't mean it.

Take that image, the unintentional murderer swinging their axe, put it aside.

Right now we're in the Three Weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. A time of communal mourning for the Destruction of the Beit Hamiqdash, the Destruction of Israelite Independence in our Land, and the Exile in which we still live. They say that what caused the second Temple to be destroyed was שנאת חינם — baseless hatred, free hatred, worthless hatred. When I look around the world, I see a lot of hatred. And this hatred is usually expressed in words.

People say things, very serious things; they make statements all the time, and I don't know if they really think about what they're saying. Because either they're not really thinking about what they're saying, and using words that if they thought before they spoke, they would realize shouldn't be used; or they actually do mean what they say, and that's even more frightening.

For example, the word עמלק. People throw this word around like it just meant "slimy bastard" &mdash but ‘amaleiq has very serious halakhic implications. It has a definition! When you call a group of people who you've never met personally עמלק, what you are saying is that you believe that you have not just the right, but the obligation, to go out and slaughter them. Men and women. Combatants and noncombatants. Children. Babies. All of them. Because that is what עמלק means. We give words meaning, and so we can't claim that we didn't mean what we said. And it's not like people only call anonymous foreign masses ‘Amaleiq — leaders of communities have thrown that word against others in their own community who have nothing more than an ideological difference of opinion with them! For this you threaten the lives of them and their children?!

Another recent example which has been going around the Internet lately — an incident where one Israeli government official called another one a Nazi (simply because he was trying to follow the law and do the right thing, as opposed to what the other guy wanted), and because the one who was called a Nazi lost his family in the Holocaust, he slapped him. The word Nazi means something. It means something very specific. Like ‘Amaleiq, it's not a word that you can just throw around as if it meant nothing more than 'slimy bastard' — and it even seems that the guy who used the word knew what he was saying, and meant it!

A third example, which may have occured a while ago, but I only heard about it recently. I don't keep up much on politics (because it hurts my soul) but it seems that an American political pundit or commentator said that a certain politician deserves to be blown up in a terror attack. I assume this is because they think the politician is too soft on terrorism, but please! Come on! To actually say that you want someone to get blown apart in a terrorist attack? Once again, either they weren't thinking about what they were saying, or they were thinking, and inexplicably decided to say it anyway.

Words have meaning, and you can't ignore that. If you call someone עמלק, you are saying that all the halakhic definitions and ramifications of that status apply to them. If you claim that someone deserves to be killed, you really are saying that that person deserves to have their life taken away.

Hhazal say that כל המלבין פני חברו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים. One who embarrasses another (such that the blood drains from their face) — it's as if they killed them and spilled their blood.

But words can kill in much more than metaphorical ways.

The pen is mightier than the sword because the pen drags the sword along with it in its wake.

Just open up the newspaper and you'll see people killing with their words. Every day, people make statements. "So-and-so is a rodeif." "So-and-so is an infidel." "So-and-so deserves to die."

And people take these statements at face value! After all, if words mean anything, why would you assume that people don't mean what they say?

And if you open up the newspaper, you can see every day people accepting their own, or other people's statements, and acting on them. Killing people. Hurting people. They've come to the conclusion that someone deserves to die, and they take the completely logical step of remaking the world into how it's supposed to be.

So, I guess the moral of the story is this:

Be very careful what you do. When you're swinging that axe, pay attention. Pay attention to whether it's built correctly, whether it's in good working order, whether you know who and what is around you. Because if it breaks and hurts someone, it's your fault.

And be very careful what you say. Words have meaning. And when it comes to human life, just as in action, words have very serious consequences. We need to be very very careful never to act or speak as if we know who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Because someone — whether us or someone else — may very well take our words at their meaning.

We are not God.
We are not the Creator of Worlds.
We cannot weigh reality in the palm of our hand.
We do not know who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

And we are not Moshe.
We do not speak to God face-to-face.
We do not see the universe through pure God-colored lenses.
God does not tell us the contents of God's heavenly record books.

And we are not Pinehhas either.
According to Hhazal, Pinehhas did not act on his own initiative a few parshas ago, when he followed Zimri and Kozbi into the chamber, and speared them through. He asked Moshe. He asked the prophet. He asked the person with the direct line to God.

Because human life is deadly serious.

We have to be very very careful.

If you think you know who deserves to live and who deserves to die, and you use words, use language, to impose your evaluation on reality, you have already impacted on human life. Whether or not anyone acts on your words.

And if you think you know who deserves to live and who deserves to die, you're wrong. It doesn't matter how right you think you are. You're wrong. Because you're not Pinehhas. And you're not Moshe. And you're certainly not God.

In the end, just like our poor lumberjack negligently swinging their axe, you're nothing but a רוצח.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

God Was Not In The Fire:
the Rise, Fall, and Transformation
of Elijah the Prophet

based on part of my תנ"ך curriculum for my classes this past year
as well as a שיעור i gave שבועות night on the upper west side

Ahh’av ben ‘Omri was king of Northern Israel. He married Izevel bat Etba‘al, a Cana‘anite princess from Tzidon, and with her imported the worship of the Cana‘anite deities Ba‘al and Asheira to become the official state religion of the Israelian Kingdom.

And then Eiliyahu Hatishbi, from the inhabitants of Gil‘ad, said to Ahh’av, "As Yhvh, the God of Israel, before whom I have stood, lives — there will be no dew nor rain these years unless it be by my command!"
Who? What? Huh?

This is our first introduction to Eiliyahu Hanavi’, the Prophet Elijah.

He just shows up, suddenly, in mediās rēs, and we're supposed to know all about him. What's certain is that the other figures in the story know all about him — things that we have not yet been told — but we'll get to that.

We aren't told who his father or mother are. We aren't told what tribe he's from (although, if he's from the Gil‘ad, that would indicate either Gad or Menashe, maybe Leivi). We aren't even told that he's a prophet. And he certainly doesn't act like a prophet — there's no כה אמר ה, no "thus says God" — it's as if Eiliyahu is acting on his own initiative, his own power, swearing that as God lives there will be no precipitation on Israel; but not as God says, the way you expect prophets to express themselves. This punitive drought seems to be exclusively Eiliyahu's idea.

And so God tells Eiliyahu to go hide in Nahhal Kerit, where ravens brought him food and he drank water from the nahhal stream, until some time later real life intrudes on Elijah's miraculous haven — the creek dried up, for there was no rain in the land.

He denied water to the rest of the country.
Now he has to deal with the consequences of his action.

And so God tells him to get up and go to Tzarefat, a town of Tzidon, where God has commanded a widow to support him. And so Eiliyahu heads up to Tzarefat, where he encounters a widow, who he asks for water and bread.

She responds:
All I have is a handful of flour and a bit of oil in a container; and so here I am, gathering two pieces of wood so I can go home, make food for myself and my son, and then we will eat it, and die.
Elijah had so far only been slightly personally affected by the drought. His stream dried up. Boo hoo. God had already promised him that there would be someone to feed him. This widow and her son, on the other hand, had no such assurances. They had already been suffering in this drought — Eiliyahu's drought — for a year now, and had just enough food left for one meal. "We will eat it, and then we will die."

Lucky for them, though, God had sent Eiliyahu to them so that they could feed the prophet... and so that the prophet could feed them — so says Yhvh, God of Israel: the jar of flour will not end, and the container of oil will not run out, until the day when God gives rain...
Notice who's giving the rain.

Elijah took the rain away. But he bit off more than he could chew.

God is the one who promises to bring it back.

You might think that this would be the end of the story. But the widow's son gets sick until his soul did not remain. He was saved from death by starvation, but somehow Elijah's presence still had a negative impact on the son's survival. And so Eiliyahu prays to God, and performs something that looks like CPR, and the child rejoined the living.

Elijah's presence saved the widow and her son from starvation, but there are men, women and children just like them all across the country who are still starving and dying because of him. Maybe he needed some first-hand experience with death in order to understand what it is that he is doing to Israel and the neighboring lands.

Eiliyahu still, though, doesn't seem to get the message. It takes until the third year for God to tell him to go appear to King Ahh’av, so that God will give rain. Did Eiliyahu have the right to withhold rain, but not the power to release it? Or maybe he was given the power to bring back the rain, but it took a direct command from God to get him to actually do it...

And so, Eiliyahu encounters ‘Ovadyahu. Although he was an official in Ahh’av and Izevel's palace, ‘Ovadyahu was a loyal Yhvh-worshipper, who had saved 100 prophets of God by hiding and feeding them in two caves while Izevel's inquisition was trying to murderously root out Israelite religion to make way for her Cana‘anite faith. And so ‘Ovadyahu protests (too much?), freaking out that seeing Eiliyahu spells his death sentence. When he goes back to Ahh’av and tells the king that Elijah wants to talk, they'll kill the messenger. Because when Ahh’av goes out to meet with Eiliyahu, the prophet won't be there — he will have disappeared, because a wind of God will have picked him up and carried him off to some other place.
Where the heck does ‘Ovadyahu get this crazy idea from? A wind of God is going to scoop up Eiliyahu and carry him away from his enemies? Why would he expect such a thing?

Because it's happened before.

We started this story in mediās rēs. Many things have been going on that we haven't been told about. But ‘Ovadyahu knows, because he was there. He's part of the narrative. We are not. And Eiliyahu is getting more mysterious by the minute.

When Eiliyahu and Ahh’av finally meet, they trade insults, each calling the other one "troubler of Israel" — Eiliyahu blames Ahh’av for straying from God and following the Ba‘als, and Ahh’av seemingly blames Eiliyahu for (what else?) the drought that the country is suffering.

Eiliyahu and Ahh’av then set up a Final Showdown between the Prophet of God and the Prophets of Ba‘al. Elijah castigates the people for bouncing back and forth between gods instead of choosing one and sticking with it. The rules for the showdown are:
They will give us two bulls; [the prophets of Ba‘al] will choose one, cut it apart, and put it on the wood [on an altar] — but they will not light the sacrifice on fire; and I will similarly prepare the other bull, placing it on the wood without fire. And then you may call in the name of your god, and I will call in the name of Yhvh; and the god that will answer with fire, that one is God.

And so the Ba‘al team goes first, and after half the day goes by and even bouncing on their altar doesn't help get a response from Ba‘al, Eiliyahu starts teasing them.

Elijah then went and repaired the old Israelite altar up there on Har Karmel, and set up his own sacrifice. But then he poured water all over it.
Remember — they're all waiting for fire to come down from heaven, or otherwise miraculously appear as a sign of Godhood. So soaking the meat, wood, and stones would make the fire even more miraculous, in that it can burn even soaking wet objects. But that's not the only reason to pour jugs and jugs of water over the altar...

It was a drought, remember?! These people have been starving of hunger and thirst for three years already, and Eiliyahu is dumping water on the altar and on the ground around the altar when all the people want is water to drink?! Not very nice — and we've already seen how he teased the prophets of Ba‘al, so teasing the rest of the people isn't so surprising — but definitely makes an impression.

Eiliyahu prays, and then a fire of God falls on the altar and burns everything up. The people are duly impressed, and exclaim Yhvh is the God! Yhvh is the God!

Mission accomplished.

Then the killing begins. The people flock to Eiliyahu and follow his instructions, taking hold of the prophets of Ba‘al and dragging them down to Nahhal Qishon, where he slaughters them.

Even Ahh’av seems to be impressed or convinced, as he begins following Eiliyahu's instructions. Soon enough, the rains return, and Eiliyahu runs before Ahh’av all the way back to the palace at Yizra‘eil.

Mission accomplished?

Not quite.

Ahh’av told Izevel all about what happened.
Did he say "OMG, Izevel, we were wrong all along! Yhvh is the only true god! Let's go fire all those priests of Ba‘al and send them back to Phoenicia!"? Did he say "WTF, Izevel, that treasonous bastard Eiliyahu killed all of our prophets! We have to stop him before he starts a revolt!"?

It doesn't say.

We do, however, have Izevel's reaction.

So may the Gods do [to me] and more, if this time tomorrow you [Eiliyahu] are not [as dead] as any of [my prophets who you killed]!

And Elijah just runs away.

He leaves the country, heading down from Israel to Judah.

And then he walks out into the desert, sits down under a rotem bush, and asks to die. Eiliyahu was just at the high-point of his career — after beating the people over and over again with a long drought, calling fire down from heaven, and slaughtering the idolatrous prophets who had assumedly led Izevel's crusade against the prophets of God — and now, with one threat from the Queen, everything's lost. He just gives up. "It's too much now, God; take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." They failed to turn the Israelite Nation back to God, and so has Elijah. Just when he thought he won, he lost. And now he's gone suicidal.

So he goes to sleep under the rotem, and wakes up suddenly when an angel pokes him and says, "Get up and eat."

Eiliyahu looks, and notices that there's food now. The angel seems to have cut down part of the rotem, burned it into charcoal, and used the impressive heat of rotem-charcoal to cook some food. So Elijah eats the food, and drinks the water... and rolls right back over and goes back to sleep.
Fine, so he's feeling emo. He's feeling like he wants to die. He doesn't even have the will to make use of the rotem himself. But when a messenger of God comes, cooks him food and gives him water — he doesn't get the hint that survival must continue? Life must go on? Wake up, Eiliyahu!

So the angel pokes him again, and says, "Get up and eat... because you still have a long journey."

And Eiliyahu finally gets the hint. He got up, and ate, and drank, and walked on the strength of that eating for forty days and forty nights, all the way to Hhoreiv, the Mountain of God [=Sinai].
Notice, though, that the angel never told him where to go. Was he supposed to continue walking off alone into the wilderness? Or was he supposed to go back home to the Northern Kingdom, get out of his rut and get back to work?

Elijah arrives at the Mountain of God, and sure enough, God speaks to him.

God asks, "What are you doing here, Eiliyahu?"
You don't belong here. Go home. Wake up, Elijah, and save your dream!

Hey, it's a question. Maybe it's completely rhetorical, maybe only partially so, but the prophet thinks that he has a good answer:
I have shown extreme passion for Yhvh, God of the Battalions — for the Israelites have abandoned your contract! They destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword — I am the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!

Seems like a fair summary of what's happened so far; just when he thought he won, he lost. They (well, Izevel specifically) want to kill him. But what's this about being the only prophet left alive? Eiliyahu used that line back at the showdown on Har Karmel — but there he was talking to the assembled nation, and to King Ahh’av! They're not supposed to know about the 100 prophets saved and supported by ‘Ovadyahu... but this is God he's talking to now, the Creator of Worlds, Yhvh of the Battalions — how can he say such an obvious untruth to the Inspector of Minds?!

Eiliyahu isn't speaking from his logic, he's speaking from his emotions. He's depressed, suicidal even. He really feels like his failure is the failure of all the prophets who have ever lived. It wasn't worth it. I put forth so much effort, so much passion, so much zeal he says, but everything ended up back the way it started.

And so God gives him a pyrotechnic display even greater than the fire falling on Mount Karmel —
And there was a great and mighty wind, breaking mountains and shattering rocks before God — but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake — but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire — but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, qol demama daqa (the sound of thin silence).

And the sound of thin silence heralded God's voice.

So let me ask you again, I can imagine God saying, because God does ask again: What are you doing here, Eiliyahu?

And Eiliyahu answers the same answer — word for word, letter for letter, trop for trop!
I have shown extreme passion for Yhvh, God of the Battalions — for the Israelites have abandoned your contract! They destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword — I am the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!

Somehow, Eiliyahu didn't get the hint. God doesn't put on pyrotechnic shows for individual human beings just for kicks. There was a message there. Look at the supernatural phenomena, Elijah. There was a wind, a powerful wind, wreaking havoc and shattering stone. There was an earthquake, knocking objects off their bases. There was a fire, like the fire you called down from Heaven up on the Karmel. But I was not in those showy, violent, dangerous displays. I came with the sound of thin silence. Eiliyahu is a prophet of fire, of earthquakes, of hurricane winds. He put forth so much zeal, expended so much energy, burned so much passion — so much violent, burning passion — but God was not in the fire. God was not in the dry winds that blew in with the drought. God answered his prayer, and let him make unratified declarations of change in reality. But God was not in Eiliyahu's fire. God was in the soft sound of silence.

But Eiliyahu didn't get the hint. He didn't understand the message; or if he did (as suggested by R' Aryeh Klapper), he refused to accept it. And so he answered the same answer. Word for word, letter for letter, trop for trop.

And so God gave Elijah his final mission:
  1. annoint Hhaza’eil to be the new king of Aram
  2. annoint Yeihu’ ben Nimshi to be the new king of Israel, replacing the ‘Omri dynasty of Ahh’av's family
  3. annoint Elisha‘ ben Shafat from Aveil Mehhola to replace you as prophet

Eiliyahu, you're fired.

Our first encounter with Eiliyahu, he was declaring a drought. When we are first introduced to Elisha‘, on the other hand, instead of immediately running off to be a prophet with Elijah, he kisses his parents goodbye, and makes a feast for the people. Only then does he leave to be the prophet's apprentice. This is the kind of person Elisha‘ is.

The first thing we saw Eiliyahu do was withholding sustenance; the first thing we see Elisha‘ do is feeding the people.

However, this isn't the end of the story for Elijah. In the process of castigating the king for looking for answers by Ba‘al Zevuv, god of ‘Eqron, instead of God, he kills two separate squads of 50 soldiers each, by calling down fire from heaven. Even after he's been downsized, his anger has not ceased, and his arm is still outstretched.

And so, at the end of his career of violent, showy pyrotechnics, God gives Eiliyahu the big appropriate send-off, carrying him off in a storm heavenwards after a chariot of fire with horses of fire swept past, separating Elijah from his replacement. Just like before, a wind of God has picked Eiliyahu up and taken him away... but this time he won't be coming back (or will he?).

Eiliyahu killed people. He called down fire from heaven and droughts across the land.

Elisha‘'s style, on the other hand...

Elisha‘ cured an undrinkable spring; neutralized a poison stew; multiplied food for the people; and floated an iron axe-head out of the river. He even helped the general of the enemy nation of Aram to cure himself of tzara‘at!

Eiliyahu was a fireball prophet of zeal and retribution; Elisha‘ is a friendly neighborhood prophet of helpful miracles.

Elisha‘ even repeats a number of acts performed by his predecessor — he helps out a poor widow by miraculously multiplying her oil, and he resuscitates a dead child by performing something that looks like CPR. Of course, one of the major differences between the stories is that by Eiliyahu, the woman's lack of food was his fault due to the drought, whereas by Elisha‘, the woman in Shuneim was just poor.

Similarly, when Aramean soldiers try to kill or capture Elisha‘ for supernaturally revealing their classified troop movements to the Israelian forces, instead of fireballing them like Eiliyahu would, he has an army of firey chariots and horses smite them with temporary blindness, after which he leads them to Shomron, the capital of the North, where he convinces the king to give them food and water, and let them go home instead of killing the enemy soldiers.

There are a few times, however, where Elisha‘ loses his temper:
  1. Upon leaving the Jordan Valley after Eiliyahu was taken up, a crowd of "small youths" accost him, and call him "baldy" — seemingly either an insulting reference to his physical features, or a metaphorical insult, saying that he is nowheres near the prophet that Elijah, who was known for being hairy, was. In fact, Elisha‘ was promised that his witnessing his predecessor's showy pyrotechnical removal from this world was a sign that he will actually be twice the prophet that Eiliyahu was.
    So the "small youths" come out, throw insults at Elisha‘, and in response, he curses them in the name of God. And then two bears come out of the forest and rip apart the little brats.

  2. In the story about Na‘aman, the Aramean general, Elisha‘ refused to take any payment for his help. However, after Na‘aman left, Elisha‘'s servant Geihhazi snuck after him, told him that the prophet would accept a gift after all (on behalf of others), and undermined Elisha‘'s message and authority.
    When he returned, Elisha‘ rebuked him and cursed him that the tzara‘at that Na‘aman had just been cured from should infect Geihhazi and all his descendents.

  3. When Elisha‘ is about to die, he gets angry at the king for not performing a symbolic prophetic act (representing victory over Aram) emphatically enough, predicting that now Aram will not be defeated for long and remain a problem for Israel.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 107b, it says:
Our rabbis taught:
Elisha‘ was ill three times —
once, when he sicced bears on babies;
once, when he pushed Geihhazi away with both hands;
and once, when he died.

Although only in the last case does seifer Melakhim explicitly say that Elisha‘ was sick, Hhazal state that in all three of these incidents, Elisha‘ was ill. He wasn't himself. In distinction to his usual, friendly neighborhood prophet role, he got angry. He hurt people. He didn't give them a chance to repent. He acted like Eiliyahu.

Now, think of all the folktales that we tell about Eiliyahu Hanavi’. They usually involve a poor family, or a person in some other precarious situation. A mysterious stranger shows up, and miracles start happening. The poor family has food for Shabbos. The lost hikers find their way to the road. And then the stranger who helped them so much disappears, and the only answer is well, it must have been Elijah!

These are the stories we tell about Eiliyahu. When you read Melakhim, he doesn't seem like the kind of prophet you would want to bump into in a dark alley at night. But in these stories he's so friendly, so giving, so... like Elisha‘.

God tried to teach Eiliyahu that God is not in the fire — that his violent, zealous pyrotechnics did more harm than good. And God had to fire Eiliyahu when he didn't get the message, replacing him with a kinder, gentler prophet — Elisha‘ — to turn the people's hearts back to God through love instead of fear. And then God took Eiliyahu away in a suitably flashy display of violent power.

And now we have all these folktales, from across the Jewish world, about mysterious miracle-working strangers — who could be none other than the Prophet Elijah — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and saving the poor from debt.

I think maybe by now he's learned his lesson.

behold, I will send to you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great and terrible day of God
and he will turn the heart of parents to children
and the heart of children to their parents
so that I will not come and smite the earth with destruction

(terey-‘asar mal’akhi 3:23-24)

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Public Service Announcement:

Two friends and I said ברכת הגומל, the "thank you God for saving me from deadly situations" blessing, on Shabbos morning because at 2am Shabbos night the carbon monoxide detector went off. When the fire department arrived with their portable detector tools, they said that the level of CO (which cannot be seen or smelled) in the apartment (of the one who the other friend and i were staying by) had already reached such a level that we would have been dead in 8 hours or less. We would have just gone to sleep and never woken up for shul in the morning.

I am heading out to buy a carbon monoxide detector for my apartment. YOU NEED TO GET ONE TOO. If you already have one, make sure it's working properly.

ברוך גומל לחייבים טובות שגמלנו כל טוב