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Parashat Aharei Mot

April 14, 2011

Shabbat Ha-Gadol

Herald of Redemption

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents…”  (Malachi 3:23).

The liturgy of Passover in its original form seems focused on past history-the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt in the time of Moses.  Along the way, however, it acquired the theme of ultimate future redemption-the Messianic redemption at the end of days.  This thematic development can be seen particularly in the haftarot that the Rabbis assigned to be read for this festival.  Shabbat Hol Ha-Mo’ed features the haftarah from Ezekiel Chapter 37, with the vision of the dry bones taking on flesh and breath and coming back to life.  The haftarah for the eighth day of Passover centers on Isaiah Chapter 11, the definitive prophecy of the person of the Messiah himself, the ideal leader who has a sixth sense for justice, in whose reign the wolf and lamb shall lie down together in peace.  And the festival is introduced in the preceding Sabbath with the signal of the coming of Elijah.It is his wakeup call, reminding him to gear up to visit our Seder tables in the coming days.

Elijah is an interesting choice for this apocalyptic role.  He is in many ways the archetype of the prophet-a loner, dwelling in the desert, swooping down unexpectedly with his messages of admonition.  Modern thinkers such as Ahad Ha-Am and Heschel have portrayed the prophet as an extreme personality, the uncompromising representative of the pure ideal that is so difficult to translate into reality.  They contrast the prophet-type with the priest, who compromises the ideal in order for it to find at least partial expression in social institutions.

Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud caps its closing rhapsody of Messianic speculation with a tale of Elijah laced with ambivalence.  It takes place in the reign of King Ahab, the hen-pecked enabler of his idol-worshipping wife Jezebel.  Hiel the Bethelite has just lost his firstborn and lastborn sons, in punishment for rebuilding the city of Jericho in defiance of Joshua’s ancient edict and curse.  Ahab and Elijah pay Hiel a shiva call.  Ahab asks skeptically:  Was it really Joshua’s curse that brought about Hiel’s misfortune?  Why, then, has not the curse of Moses been fulfilled, that forecast drought and famine if the Israelites worship idols?  Yet Ahab has not even been able to make the rounds of his many idolatrous shrines, because it never stops raining!  Elijah takes the bait, and responds:  “As the Lord lives, there will be no rain or dew except at my bidding” (I Kings 17:1)-and instantly departs for his wilderness hideaway.

Who gave him the authority to withhold the rain?  The rabbis interpolate midrashically:  Elijah had to beg God to give him the key that opens or closes the faucets of heaven, to gain control of this precious resource.  The story goes on to relate that Elijah stayed with a widow in Zarephath, whom he miraculously supplied with meal and oil.  But her son fell sick and died.  Elijah had to beg God again, this time to supply the key to the resurrection.  God objects:  There are three keys-for the heavens, for the womb, and for the resurrection.  Is Elijah to have two, and leave God with only one?  Give back the key to the heavens, and you can get the key for the resurrection!  Elijah consents to the exchange.  Immediately, God tells Elijah:  “Go, appear before Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.” (I Kings 18:1; Sanhedrin 113a). The rabbinic author of this story portrays Elijah as a zealot, who is quick to punish Israel with drought, whereas God-the all-Merciful-is ready to forgive them and restore the rain as soon as He has the key back.  Yet paradoxically the same Elijah is portrayed by Malachi as the conciliator who will inaugurate the grand final act in the drama of history.

The lands of the Middle East are again rumbling with ambiguous signals-whether of redemption or more travail, only time will tell.  The avenging angel of regime change may play a role in the modern story, to topple the despots (as Elijah anointed Jehu to topple Ahab’s dynasty).  But the conciliating Elijah of Malachi’s prophecy will be needed if this story is ever to have a happy ending.

Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.