Is There sense in suffering?
Haftarat Vayera, 2 Kings 4:1–37
Rabbi Russ Resnik
“Great necessities call out great virtues.” – Abigail Adams
American history is one of my favorite areas of extra-biblical reading, and one of my favorite authors is Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin wrote the award-winning bestseller Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln and his cabinet, as well as studies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Her new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, explores how these four presidents, with widely diverse backgrounds and temperaments, grew into leadership and exercised it.
All of these leaders showed tremendous promise early in life and then experienced “dramatic reversals that shattered [their] public and private lives.” Lincoln served in Congress in his thirties, and was an outspoken opponent of the rather popular Mexican War. After his term in Congress his career went nowhere. Lincoln plunged into a deep depression and quit politics for five long years. Theodore Roosevelt was a rising star in New York state politics in his twenties, when his young wife died in childbirth and his beloved 45-year-old mother passed away on the same day—Valentine’s Day, 1884. He abandoned his career to seek solace and recovery on his ranch in Dakota Territory. Franklin Roosevelt ran for Vice-President before he was 40 and was on track for a presidential run when he was stricken with polio that left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. He withdrew from politics for years to work on his rehabilitation. Johnson’s story is a little more complex. As a super-star young congressman from Texas, he lost a run for the Senate in 1941 and spent seven more years in Congress before finally getting that Senate seat in 1948. In the Senate Johnson hit his stride and became the youngest majority leader—and one of the most effective—ever. Then, in 1955, he had a heart attack and resumed his career with more compassion and attention toward the poor and disadvantaged.
Goodwin lets Abigail Adams, the brilliant wife of John Adams, summarize the lesson here: “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed,” she wrote in a letter to her son John Quincy Adams. Rather, “the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
This pattern of early promise and profound testing is familiar territory to anyone who reads Scripture, starting with our first great leader, Abraham, and it’s amazing that the same pattern shows up in the lives of our great presidents. (Kearns acknowledges that Johnson’s claim to greatness is diminished by Vietnam, but recognizes the greatness of his domestic achievements, including Medicare and the most significant advances in civil rights legislation in a century.)
But the pattern of Scripture includes an element that’s not evident in the presidential bios: the trial that comes when you thought your trials were finally over.
God promises Abraham and Sarah a son, and he is finally born to them in old age. They have an heir who will carry on their legacy, and they can live out their final years in peace and contentment after years of trial. But then Hashem brings another, deeper trial. He commands Abraham to offer up this son, his loved one, even Isaac. Only after Abraham takes all the steps of obedience and lifts up the knife to slaughter his son does he hear the voice from heaven, “Don’t lay your hand on the boy! Don’t do anything to him! For now I know that you are a man who fears God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12, emphasis added).
This trial is uniquely deep and challenging because it comes when Abraham and Sarah thought their trials were finally over. They had endured for years, hoping for a son when God seemed to have forgotten them. Finally, miraculously, a son is born . . . and this sets up another trial.
Our haftarah portion tells a similar story. It’s about the trial that comes when you thought your trials were over, the trial that brings out the best.
The prophet Elisha meets a well-to-do woman in Shunam, who provides hospitality for him whenever he’s in the area. She is childless and her husband is aging, and the prophet rewards her faithfulness by promising her a son: “Next year, when the season comes around, you will be holding a son.” She replies, “No, my lord, man of God, don’t lie to your servant!” (2 Kings 4:16). Just like Sarah, this woman is skeptical and then bears a son one year later. When the boy is old enough to join his father in the fields, however, he is stricken by a mysterious illness and dies. The woman goes straight to Elisha, grabs his feet, and says, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Didn’t I say not to deceive me?” (2 Kings 4:28). The prophet realizes what’s happened, rushes to the boy, and raises him from the dead.
Like Abraham and Sarah, the Shunamite woman endures the long trial of childlessness, and then a second trial, even more bitter, when the promised child is taken from her. Their example may be an encouragement to us when we face trials that seem unfair or unbearably extended. Even amid the most deepest disappointment there is hope in God—as the example of a crucified and risen Messiah steadily reminds us.
Goodwin notes that the watershed reversals of her four presidents “at first impeded, then deepened, and finally and decisively molded their leadership.” Abraham is our first great leader and Goodwin’s observation applies to him. But it also applies to all those called to serve the God of Israel, whether recognized as leaders or not, like the Shunamite woman. And often, as in her case, the trial that comes when you think your trials are over brings out the very best.
The story ends with a hint of this woman’s deepened character. Throughout the tale she’s a no-nonsense type, a mama bear intent on protecting her son, even after he dies. When Elisha restores him to life, he calls her and says (in equally no-nonsense fashion), “Pick up your son.” And then the narrator provides a telling detail: “She entered, fell at his feet and prostrated herself on the floor. Then she picked up her son and went out” (2 Kings 4:37). Imagine the shock of losing your little son, grieving over him, and then being told that he’s alive again. Who would pause before rushing to scoop him up in your arms? But this straight-shooting Shunamite does just that. She turns to thank the prophet and to acknowledge his gift before she takes it up. She’s been transformed through her trials and made whole—more whole than she was before enduring them. That’s a lesson that survives to this day.