Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
II KINGS CHAPTER 1
The Book of Kings is conventionally divided in printed Bibles into Parts I and II for the sake of convenience, but in handwritten parchment scrolls of Sepher Melakhim, it is all one continuous book. The division in the printed Bible at this point is relatively arbitrary since it happens to come near the middle of the book (and it actually comes in the middle of a parshah=paragraph of the Hebrew text). However, the subject matter at the beginning of II Kings is a direct continuation of the narrative at the end of I Kings telling how Ahab's son Ahaziyahu came to the throne of Israel and continued in exactly the path of his father and mother.
"And Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab" (v 1). After their subjugation by King David, the Moabites had been a client state within the Israelite sphere of influence and paid Ahab 100,000 sheep annually in tribute (II Kings 3:4). When the Moabites rebelled, the new king literally FELL THROUGH THE FLOOR - i.e. through a thin wooden lattice-work screen that covered an aperture in the floor of his upper storey chamber (Metzudas David) through which one could presumably look down unseen at what was going on below. Apparently the king tripped over it and fell through - showing further how weak were the foundations of Ahab's dynasty!
The king must have been seriously injured. True to form, he sent not to an Israelite prophet to find out his prognosis (he probably feared the answer he would receive) but to priests of the cult of ZVUV, the "fly" god of the Philistine city of Ekron . (Similarly, in recent generations many alienated Jews have been searching for spiritual meaning in every tradition except their own.)
For an Israelite king to do such a thing was a serious affront to the honor of the God of Israel and His prophets, and this itself sealed the sick king's fate. In what was to be the last public mission of his ministry, Elijah the Prophet was sent to intercept the king's envoys and tell them to tell him he was going to die.
When the king heard the news and asked his envoys to describe the man who told them this, they said he was "a man of much hair with a belt of leather girded around his loins" (v 8). The abundant hair alludes to the exalted heights of Elijah's perceptions of God (each SE'AR, "hair", is a SHA'AR, "gateway" of apprehension). His "girded loins" indicate his supreme moral purity and sanctity: the "leather" was said to have come from the ram of Isaac (Gen. 22:13). On hearing these signs, the king immediately knew the prophet's identity and sent a captain with a squadron of fifty soldiers to order him to come down from his mountain to the palace in Shomron.
The captain brusquely ordered the prophet to go down, as if the honor due to his king was greater than the honor due to God's prophet. God Himself sent fire to burn up the captain and his fifty men in order to avenge the insult to the prophet, and lest the king should interpret this as a mere coincidence, He did the same to his second captain and squadron of fifty. Only the more respectful attitude of the third captain mollified Heaven sufficiently to send prophecy to Elijah to appear before the king and castigate him directly. For "Those who honor Me shall I honor, but those who despise Me shall be despised" (I Sam. 2:30). Now that the kings of Israel had gone astray, their moral authority was discredited, while God himself would vindicate the authority of His true prophets.
With his fate sealed, Ahaziahu died, and, having no children, was succeeded by his brother Jehoram son of Ahab. This initiated a period in which the kings of Israel and Judah both had the same name, since Yehoshaphat king of Judah had also called his son Jehoram.
Elijah had already asked to be relieved of his ministry of zeal and fire (I Kings 19:4), and now he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. The narrative of Elijah's ascent in our present chapter contains many teachings about the nature of prophecy. Elijah tried to persuade his disciple Elisha not to follow him, but Elisha knew prophetically that his master was to be taken from him (vv 3, 5) and refused to leave his side. The other prophets who came out to meet them also knew that Elijah was about to ascend to heaven (ibid.) - for the departure from earth of TZADDIK HADOR, the "righteous leader of the generation", was an event of the greatest significance even though ordinary mortals may have been quite unaware of it.
Elijah's journey with Elisha took them to some of the key spiritual sites in the Land, including the first Israelite encampment after their original entry, Gilgal (also having the connotation of GILGUL, reincarnation) and Beth El, where Abraham and Jacob had prayed long before Jeraboam made his golden calves.
The "sons" of the prophets who came out of Beth El and Jericho (vv 3, 5) were not necessarily their biological offspring but rather the students of the prophets, "and from here we learn that students are called children, and likewise it says, And you shall diligently teach them to your children (Deut. 6:7), and just as students are called children, so the teacher is called a father, as it says, And Elisha watched and he called, My father, my father. (II Kings 2:12; Sifrey Va-etchanan 6).
The fact that there were bands of students of prophecy in Beth El and Jericho "teaches you that there was not a city in Israel that did not have prophets - and the reason why their prophecies were not recorded is because only those prophecies that were required by subsequent generations were written down while those that were not required by subsequent generations were not written down" (Yalkut Shimoni). The fact that the prophets of Jericho , speaking to Elisha about Elijah, called the latter "YOUR master" and not OURS indicates that they were as wise as Elijah (Tosefta to Sotah).
Going in the reverse direction from the Israelites on their entry into the Land, Elijah went from Jericho to the River Jordan, which he split miraculously with his "mantle". "It would appear that Elijah had been informed through prophecy that he would be taken on the east bank of the Jordan - perhaps he was taken in the very place where Moses our Teacher was gathered in to the place of His glory, for the level of Elijah was very close to the level of Moses" (RaDaK on v 1).
If the students of the prophets are their "sons", Elisha asked of Elijah as his parting gift to be given "a double portion of your spirit upon me", alluding to the "double portion" of the firstborn son (Deut. 21:17). We do indeed see in the ensuing narratives about Elisha that he performed double the miracles of Elijah. Everything that Elisha did, he did in the power of his master, and this power came into him precisely because he was present when Elijah ascended the chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire.
RaDaK (on v 1) explains (on the level of PSHAT, the simple meaning of the text) that the "storm wind of Heaven" with which God raised Elijah (v 1) was an invisible RU'ACH which lifted the prophet up into the air taking him up through the will of God to the "sphere of fire" where all his garments except for his mantle were burned up and where his flesh and bones were consumed, while his spirit ascended to God who gave it. According to this explanation, the Chariot of Fire that appeared to Elisha came to teach him that with the ascent of Elijah the "chariot of Israel and its riders" had gone up from upon Israel . However, despite this literal interpretation of the text, RaDaK continues: "The opinion of the masses and the opinion of our sages is that God took him alive into the Garden of Eden together with his body just as Adam had been before his sin."
On the level of SOD (mystery) Rabbi Nachman teaches that while only the lower soul of the Tzaddik is revealed through his life and works in this world, the higher soul exists concurrently in the upper world. When the time comes for the Tzaddik to leave this world, his upper soul "descends" into this world in the form of the "chariot of fire", and because of the close bond between the upper and lower soul, the latter leaps out to join and reunite with the upper soul which then ascends back to the upper world. The descent of the upper soul is accompanied with an enormous revelation of wisdom and knowledge which the Tzaddik pours forth on his last day. Those of his students who are present at the time of his ascent receive a great share of this light because their souls have the same root as the Tzaddik. But whereas the Tzaddik's time has come to leave the world and he ascends, the students' time has not yet come and they therefore remain in this world but with the greater wisdom - the "double share" - they received from their master at the moment of his ascent, as in the case of Elisha (Likutey Moharan I, 66).
Back again to the level of PSHAT, Elisha's rending of his garment on the departure of his teacher is the foundation of the law that any student must rend his garment in two and never repair it when he looses his outstanding Torah teacher, and the same applies to all the community on the death of the Head of the Sanhedrin (Rambam, Laws of Mourning 9:2).
Having inherited his master's mantle, Elisha was now the leader of the generation, and the new spirit that had entered into him was immediately visible when he too used Elijah's mantle to split the Jordan and return to the Land of Israel . On seeing this, the other prophets immediately prostrated and submitted to his authority. Their asking Elisha to send out a search party to find Elijah (vv 16-17) after having previously prophesied that he was going to be taken away (vv 3, 5) was understood by the rabbis to indicate that from the moment Elijah ascended, holy spirit increasingly departed from the prophets and there was no longer much holy spirit in Israel (Rashi on v 16).
Elisha also inherited the passionate zeal of Elijah, and while he miraculously healed the waters of Jericho for the prophets, he showed no compassion on the "small lads" who came out from Beth El mocking his "baldness" (they were complaining that he had left the land bald by taking away their livelihood since previously they earned money by importing water from elsewhere). The commentators teach that they were called NA'ARIM ("lads") because they were ME-NUAR-IM ("stripped bare") of Mitzvos! Elisha saw that these were souls that would never produce any good even in the generations to come and this was why he cursed them (Rashi on v 23; Sotah 46b). For "Those who honor Me shall I honor, but those who despise Me shall be despised" (I Sam. 2:30).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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