Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
I KINGS CHAPTER 17
To raise the people from the deep spiritual decline into which they had fallen in the time of Ahab required a figure of outstanding stature. Opinions differ as to which tribe Elijah came from: some rabbis said he was from the tribe of Gad, which inherited Gil'ad. Others darshened from I Chron. 8:27 that he was from the tribe of Benjamin, while others identified him (or his soul) with Pinchas son of Elazar the Cohen (pointing to Elijah's request in v 13 to the widow of Tzorphath to give him the first portion of her dough, corresponding to the priestly Hallah, Numbers 15:20-21).
Elijah received the Torah tradition from Ahiyah HaShiloni and gave it over to Yehoyada HaKohen and as well as being master of all the subsequent great prophets of Israel (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Introduction). After Elijah's ascent alive to Heaven in a chariot of fire, he became a legendary figure, making repeated miraculous appearances at moments of dire crisis.
"And through a prophet [Moses] God brought Israel up from Egypt , and through a prophet [Elijah] they were protected" (Hosea 12:14). While Moses was the agent of God's redemption of Israel from Egypt , Elijah will be His agent to redeem them in time to come (Malachi 3:23). There are numerous parallels between Moses and Elijah. Both are called "the man of God"; both ascended to Heaven; Moses killed the Egyptian while Elijah killed Hi-el (who built Jericho , Midrash on Hosea 13:1). Moses was sustained in exile by a woman (Tzipporah) while Elijah was sustained by the widow of Tzorphath. Moses fled from Pharaoh while Elijah fled from Jezebel. Both fled to a well (Ex. 2:I5; Kings 19:3). Moses brought about supernatural miracles (Numbers 16:29) and so did Elijah by stopping and starting the rains. God passed by both (Ex. 34:6; I Kings 19:11) and both heard "the voice" (Numb. 7:89; I Kings 19:13). Both came to Horeb (Ex. 3:1; I Kings 19:8) and both were hidden in a cave (Ex.33:22; I Kings 19:9). Moses assembled Israel at Mount Sinai, while Elijah assembled them at Mt. Carmel . Moses uprooted idolatry (Ex.32:27) while Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40) and so on (Midrash Pesikta Rabbasi).
"AND HE SHALL SHUT UP THE HEAVENS AND THERE WILL NOT BE RAIN" (Deut. 11:17)
The rabbis darshened from the SEMICHUS ("immediate proximity") of Elijah's stopping of the rains (ch 17 v 1) to the account of the death of the sons of Hi-el, who rebuilt Jericho , that Elijah and Ahab both went to visit Hi-el in his mourning. When Elijah said that Hi-el's sons had died because he had defied Joshua's curse in rebuilding Jericho, Ahab asked how it was possible that God would uphold the curse of the student (Joshua) while not fulfilling the curse of the master (Moses) who had said that if Israel turned aside to serve idols, God's anger would burn and He would shut up the heavens - yet idolatry was rampant in the time of Ahab and it still rained regularly (see Rashi on v 1).
It was as a rejoinder to this insinuation that everything is governed by chance and that there is no divine judgment or providence that Elijah brought about a drought through the power of his own words, showing that God gives over the very keys of creation into the hands of His prophets. Elijah hoped that drought and famine would chastise the hearts of the arrogant idolaters of the time and bring them to humble themselves before God. [The current protracted drought in Eretz Israel is also causing us to fear and turn to God. Pray for rain!!!]
Immediately after making his decree, Elijah had to flee - the wicked Jezebel, who obviously called the shots in Shomron, had instigated a reign of complete terror, killing all true prophets, in an effort to efface the Torah from the hearts of Israel .
When God commanded the ravens - the cruelest of birds - to nonetheless bring bread and meat to Elijah (which they are said to have taken either from the kitchen of Ahab, or more likely from that of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, which was more kosher), it was a hint that it was time for Elijah to have mercy on the people and soften his harsh decree. Rabbi Nachman teaches that the radical change the ravens made in their normally cruel attitudes is emblematic of the change every Jew must make in his normally selfish ways in order to force himself to give charity. When a person gives charity because he is naturally generous-hearted, this is not a real act of service. Charity is only service when we break our instinctive cruelty and selfishness in order to help others - and such charity opens up all the gates of holiness (Likutey Moharan Pt. II Discourse 4).
The widow of Tzorphath who courageously gave Elijah her last remaining food even at the height of a famine is symbolic of Knesset Israel - the Assembly of Israel - who had descended to the very bottom in the time of Ahab, yet were restored through the spiritual power of the prophet. Thus the widow's son (identified with the prophet Jonah) was if not actually clinically dead at the very least no longer breathing (v 17) when Elijah performed his miraculous resuscitation. The prophet's ability to revive the lifeless lad is a sign that God's Redeemer will save Israel from even the worst decline.
Out of compassion for His suffering people God sent Elijah to bring down the rains. The dire famine forced the very king himself to go out in search of forage for the animals (v 5), which shows the tenderness of Ahab's Israelite heart compared to that of his foreign wife, who had instigated a murderous rampage against God's prophets.
Even more surprising than this compassionate trait of Ahab's is the fact that as officer over his royal household he had appointed none other than the saintly prophet Obadiah, whom the Biblical text praises even more than Abraham since of the latter God said "I know you fear God" (Gen. 22:12) while Obadiah is described as having "feared God VERY MUCH" (I Kings 18:3; Sanhedrin 39b). Obadiah was a righteous proselyte who originated from Edom , and he was so great that he alone of all the prophets was allowed to prophesy the downfall of Edom in the end of days. "Why did Obadiah attain prophecy? Because he hid one hundred prophets in a cave" (Sanhedrin ibid.)
When Obadiah encountered his master Elijah, he told him, "There is not a nation or kingdom to which my lord [Ahab] has not sent to seek you out. and he made the kingdom and the nation swear that they could not find you" (v 10). From the fact that Ahab had enough leverage over all the kingdoms and nations that he could force them to take an oath, the rabbis learned that Ahab presided over a global empire or sphere of influence. "Three kings ruled over the whole dome of the globe: Ahab son of Omri, Nebuchadnezzar and Ahashverosh" (Megilah 11a). The mere fact that later historians have turned a blind eye to if not intentionally tried to efface the fact that there was an extensive Israelite sphere of influence in Biblical times should not deceive us into underestimating its greatness.
"How long will you go limping between the two opinions" Elijah asked the people (I Kings 18:21). To raise the people from their spiritual collapse, a KIDDUSH HASHEM (Sanctification of God's Name) of the greatest magnitude was required. As discussed in the commentary on I Kings 16, since the building of the Temple in Jerusalem it was forbidden to sacrifice on any outside BAMAH ("altar") on pain of KARES (early death and spiritual excision). Elijah's decision to sacrifice on Mount Carmel was HORA'AS SHA'AH, a one-time legal ruling necessitated by the spiritual peril facing the nation. Elijah was not entirely uprooting the prohibition against sacrificing outside the Temple from the Torah (which would have been a sign of false prophecy) but simply suspending it for one time (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:3) for the very purpose of HEALING THE ALTAR (v 30). "He built an altar in order to remind Israel that God's Altar should have their foremost attention in their hearts and should constantly be mentioned on their lips, because it had been destroyed and its name and memory had become defunct as far as the Ten Tribes were concerned [ever since Jeraboam made the golden calves]" (Rashi on v 30).
Initially Elijah told the prophets of Baal to CHOOSE (v 25) one of the oxen (both were twins from the same mother that since birth had been together constantly in the same manger), but when it came to it, the false prophets "took the ox WHICH HE GAVE THEM" (v 26). Why did he have to GIVE it to them? The Midrash tells that after Elijah and the false prophets cast lots for their oxen, the ox that fell to the lot of the false prophets ran to Elijah and took shelter under his cloak, refusing to move because his twin brother was going to sanctify heaven while he himself would be sacrificed to an idol. Only when Elijah assured this ox that God's name would be sanctified equally by both of them did it agree to go to the false prophets, and this is why it says "WHICH HE GAVE THEM". It is said that the false prophets hid Hi-el (builder of Jericho ) under their altar with instructions to secretly light a fire at the requisite moment, but he was bitten by a snake and died before he could do so.
The great miracle that all the people witnessed when fire came down from heaven to consume Elijah's sacrifice caused them to fall on their faces declaring "HASHEM - He is God! "HASHEM - He is God!" (v 39). This phrase is solemnly repeated at the very climax of the concluding Yom Kippur NE-EELA service and on other occasions when we wish to affirm and accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven .
I Kings ch 18 vv 1-39 is the Haftara to Parshas KI THEESA (Ex. 30:11-34:35) read around Purim time.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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