Ode to Religious Fanatics
Haftarah for Pinchas, 1 Kings 18:46–19:21
Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
At my current age my heart has already beat two billion times. For many of us, we find ourselves thinking about our weight, exercise, and not only what we eat, but also what’s eating us. This last point deals with our spiritual heart, which has also throbbed millions of times, with thoughts, affections, and choices. In our hearts we determine how we will speak, behave, and respond to circumstances. The question that begs to be answered, then, is will we trust Hashem and choose to be gracious, patient, and loving, or will we yield to pride, self-seeking, and bitterness? The Scriptures exhort us to rejoice in the Lord always; why then do we so often appear to hit the road of despair? At the center of this difficulty is our presumptuous nature.
As we go through life with the promises of God in our pocket, we presume how he should behave in every situation. In the midst of our expectations, we attempt to make the Holy One the captive of our desires and the guarantor of our efforts. Ya’akov the Elder of Jerusalem said that Elijah was a man like us (James 5:17), yet it is difficult to imagine Eliyahu HaNavi, the great prophet and powerfully anointed miracle worker, having a nature just like ours. Perhaps it is in his search, however, rather than his victories that we can see our destiny, and our hope through his despondency.
The Ballad of a Depressed Prophet
In the narrative of 1 Kings 17, the back story to the haftarah portion, Elijah is God’s man. He is imbued with power and informed by the spirit of the Living God. He calls down fire from heaven, and even soaks his own offering in water to mock the prophets of Baal. Then, when Elijah has totally humiliated the false prophets, he rallies the mob that had assembled to slaughter them in the brook Kidron. Sure, he is the worker of many miracles, but in some way he becomes a miracle junky, elevated only by the hype of the moment and his next fix of power.
This week’s haftarah portion begins with Elijah’s unexpected exile. I suppose that Elijah had expected the apostate Ahab and his foreign queen Jezebel to turn tail and run when they got the bad news concerning their prophets, but instead Jezebel undauntedly threatened Elijah’s life. It is Elijah who turns tail and runs a day’s journey from Beersheba into the wilderness. Here he entreats God to take his life. At the first sign of failure he runs and whines. The apparent message: God failed him; he was the faithful servant, God is the unappreciative master. Elijah is good as long as God brings the goodies. Elijah presents himself here as religious narcissist, with an over-inflated sense of entitlement. He deflects any and all responsibility. The narrative is actually infuriating, and I often think as I read this that if I were the Holy One I might have granted Elijah his wish; but this is never how Hashem works (just think of Jonah or Moses).
It can be said that Elijah’s life is a three-act play. In 1 Kings 17 he thinks he is somebody. In chapter 18 he realizes he is nobody. Then in chapter 19, Elijah finds out how much God can do with somebody who thinks he is nobody. Hashem sustains Elijah for forty days in the wilderness and then brings him to Mount Horeb, to the very place where, according to tradition, his glory passed before Moses. The haftarah records an odd exchange between Elijah and God. Twice God asks Elijah why he is there. The answer appears quite obvious, since Hashem’s angelic emissaries led him to that place. But Elijah responds by saying, “I have been exceedingly zealous for Hashem, God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant and razed your altars; they have killed your prophets with the sword, so that I alone remain” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). In this one statement Elijah deflects criticism from himself, indicts all of Israel, and accuses God of abandoning him. Elijah’s actions are strangely reminiscent of this admonition from German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the Christian community with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the believing community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
It is clear in Elijah’s tone that if God were to act appropriately, then Ahab and Jezebel would be instantly deposed, and the entire world would know it was due to Elijah’s supercharged ministry. But this is in fact not Hashem’s immediate plan.
Hymn for the Real Deal
It is at this time that the God of Israel teaches his disgruntled employee the real meaning of power.
Hashem said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Hashem, for the presence of Hashem is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Hashem, but Hashem was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Hashem was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Hashem was not in the fire. And after the fire came a small still voice. (1 Kings 19:11–12)
The message is clear. The Lord can break mountains and shake the earth, but most often his true presence is discerned in small and gentle actions. Elijah responds to the small still voice and wraps his face in his cloak. It is rarely the brazen and the vociferous that exemplify God-like action but rather the quiet, the spiritual, the unassuming. In the words of Andrew Robert Fausset, “The Spirit of God is the voice to our soul. This is God’s immediate revelation to the heart. Miracles sound the great bell of nature to call attention; but the Spirit is God’s voice to the soul. Sternness hardens; love alone melts.” This does not mean that there are not times that call for bold and deliberate action, but most often true heroics are as quiet and unassuming as the small still voice that inspires them.
Elijah is then told three things that he will accomplish: anoint Hazael king of Aram, anoint Jehu king of Israel, and anoint Elisha a prophet in his own stead. Ironically, he does not actually accomplish any of the three tasks himself, except for the appointment of Elisha. It is rather through the ministry of Elisha that his legacy is effected and the other two tasks are completed. Elijah learns that the greatest work of God is not accomplished through a single vessel, but rather through the network of relationships that are inspired by the Spirit.
We often imagine true grit to be the fiery escapades of a self-reliant super hero. But nothing could be further from the truth. True zeal for God’s highest standards requires that we subordinate our own designs, timetables, and needs for the greater good of Hashem’s purposes. At times we seek deliverance, but instead God is offering peace. Other times we want excitement to arouse us from our empathy for the mundane, but instead we remain in the throes of the usual. How often do we ask for a word or a sign, but instead we are expected to learn the syntax of silence? At times we search for God’s intervention, but when we ask him to change our circumstances, he often desires us to change in the midst of them. When we respond to his gentle whisper, though, he can remove our despair, give us a new purpose and direction, and make us partakers of his greater plans.