Friday, July 22, 2005

Haftarat Pinhas - The Covenant of Peace


Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

-- Shakespeare
Twelfth Night: II, 159

Who is Eliahu Ha-Navi? He appears out of nowhere. In I Kings, 17:1, Eliahu the Tishbi, the Giladi, tells Ahab that he has decided to bring a drought, because of the wickedness of this king. Like Noach, who was born perfect and thus had no choice but to remain a Tzaddik, Eliahu springs full-blown from the heart of the whirwind of the history of Klal Israel. Some, indeed, are born great, and that is their terrible burden.

Eliahu's innate greatness, his dire gift of prophecy, is very much beyond his own control. The drought that he invokes almost kills Eliahu himself, until G-d appears and sends him to a brook. So Eliahu dwells in the wilderness, fed by ravens and nourished by the water of the brook until, at the end of a year, even this brook dries up.

And so G-d appears again and sends Eliahu to the city of Tzarfat, where a widow takes him in and cares for him. After another year, her son falls ill and worsens until he dies. The Hebrew is poetic, is powerful and poignant. "Ad asher lo-notrah-bo neshama" - Until there was no breath / spirit remaining within him. And the woman turns to Eliahu and asks: What is there between me and you, Man of G-d? You have come to me to remind the world of my sins and to kill my son!

So Eliahu takes the boy to his upper chamber and prays over him, and stretches himself over him, and exhorts G-d to return the boy's life within him - his prayer uses language evocative of the blessing we recite each morning in which we thank G-d for the daily restoration of our soul, our awareness, our life. And G-d listens. The text states it explicitly: not merely that the boy comes back to life, but that he comes back to life because G-d listens to Eliahu.

"Now," says the Widow, "now I know that you are a Man of G-d. And the Word of G-d is in your mouth. 'Emet'![Truth]" The second clause of this verse may be read variously: And the Word of G-d in your mouth is Truth; And the word of G-d is truly in your mouth; And the Word of G-d is in your mouth. Truth! (my preferred reading).

What has happened between the first speaking and the last? In her grief and rage, the Widow accuses Eliahu of being a Man of G-d. After he restores her son's life, she praises him as a Man of G-d, with the same words. What is the difference between Eliahu at the death of her son, and Eliahu at her son's return to life? How does Eliahu make the transformation from being the austere and unforgiving Man of G-d who calls down cosmic punishments on the Wicked, to being the compassionate and loving Man of G-d who tenderly cares for the weakest among the People?

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach reminds us that the reason the Haftara is assigned to a particular Parasha is that the Prophet who authored the text brought that particular prophecy on Motzaei Shabbat of that Parasha. That there is an intimate and exalted connection between the Parasha and it Haftara. In most years, this Haftara is not read. This year, when Parashat Pinhas comes before 17 Tammuz, we read the Haftara of Eliahu Ha-Navi.

What is the connection of Eliahu to Pinhas? Why is Eliahu both Man of G-d who destroys, and Man of G-d who restores to life, who performs miracles of destruction and miracles of resurrection? Eliahu, who is born great, and Pinhas, who has greatness thrust upon him. Eliahu, who would kill, but who instead restores to life despite himself: Pinhas, who kills in a burst of uncontrolled rage, yet who is immediately designated the successor to the line of Aharon?

Chapter 18 of I Kings opens with G-d sending Eliahu to Ahab. G-d announces: I will give rain upon the face of the earth. And Eliahu races to fulfill G-d's command, races to confront Ahab. Along the way, he stops at Mt. Carmel to perform a monumental conjuring trick, bringing down fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifices. Unlike the story of Korach and his rebellious nobles, the fire does not consume the False Prophets of Baal. Apparently the false worship of false gods is not life threatening. It is only the false worship of the true G-d that brings death.

As Pinhas slays Zimri ben Salu, Eliahu slays the four hundred and fifty Prophets of Baal. No sooner does the promised great rain come, breaking the three-year drought, then Eliahu flees for his life before Ahab and Izevel. He finds himself alone in the wilderness and is saved by an angel who brings him bread and water - just as he was miraculously sustained for a year in the house of the Widow and her son.

The Rabbis bring down a tradition that Pinhas and Eliahu are one and the same person. But Eliahu has qualities we do not see in Pinhas. Or rather, Eliahu is the realization of qualities that G-d plants in Pinhas, the blossoming of the fruit. After Pinhas kills the offenders, G-d imposes upon his the Covenant of Peace. And Pinhas simultaneously inherits the mantle of Aharon - Aharon, the one who achieved greatness, merely by standing on the sidelines and waiting to be called upon. Aharon, whose greatest and most profound and most unattainable attribute is that he was always, always in a state of readiness to serve.

The Man of G-d who brings drought and famine upon an entire nation, merely to punish its king, is a harsh and merciless judge. The Man of G-d who restores life to an innocent boy - who, but for Eliahu's living in his house, might have just as well died during the famine - is a man who has at least attempted to embrace the Covenant of Peace.

At the opening of II Kings (1:1-9), Achaziah ["I shall behold G-d"] King of Israel, sends for Eliahu. His captains approach Eliahu where he sits atop a mountain and call out to him: "Man of G-d!" But this is the first Man of G-d, the Man of G-d who has not yeat encountered the Covenant of Peace, for Eliahu calls down fire from Heaven and the soldiers are consumed.

Finally, G-d takes Eliahu away in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire, leaving Elisha, Eliahu's disciple and a;ppointed successor, to carry on.

The greatness of Eliahu is his immense innate holiness. Because only someone who is perfectly holy can invoke a drought, a famine, even against the wishes of G-d. The Rabbis tell us that Eliahu was one of four people who never sinned throughout their lifetimes. This is why Eliahu is taken up in the chariot, rather than being permitted to die and be buried. But it is also a terrible burden that robs Eliahu for most of his lifetime of the possibility of being merely human. Some are born great. It is only in moments, in the gaps within the story, that Eliahu's profound human-ness emerges. Moments such as the episode of restoring to life the son of the Widow.

In I Kings 19 Eliahu flees for his life. He walks for forty days and nights without food or drink, until he arrives at Mt. Horeb, which is Sinai. Like Moshe, who touches neither food nor drink for forty days and nights, Eliahu communes with G-d and thus takes no earthly nourishment. Like Moshe, he arrives alone at Mt. Horeb / Sinai, and here he complains to G-d. Out of earshot of the People, of even his closest associates, he can speak freely with G-d, from whom there are no secrets; before whom modesty has no meaning, because all is known. "Kano kaneti la-Shem," says Eliahu: I have been very jealous for the sake of G-d, for Bnei Israel have forsaken your Covenant.

This dialogue takes place in the cave at Mt. Horeb - in the cleft prepared in the rock where G-d hid Moshe after the Sin of the Golden Calf - after Bnei Israel had forsaken G-d's Covenant, had figuratively destroyed G-d's altars and killed G-d's prophets. And in this hidden place, G-d answered Moshe's prayer and revealed G-d's Glory.

And what is the Essence of this Glory? "G-d! G-d! Compassionate and Gracious; long-suffering and great with Kindness and Truth! Preserver of Kindness for thousands; forgiving iniquity and error, and who cleanses!"

Although Eliahu will ascend in whirlwind and fire, yet his lesson in this life is taught in other elements. G-d takes Eliahu out of the cave and onto the Mountain. There, G-d passes before him. Just as before Moshe, G-d's passing is accompanied by a great wind that breaks down mountains and shatters rocks; and G-d's passing is accompanied by an earthquake; and G-d's passing is accompanied by fire.

At Parashat Ki Tisa, after the Golden Calf, Moshe is told: You will not see my face, but you will see my "Achorai", usually translated as, You will see my back. (The Midrash says that, after G-d had passed, Moshe looked up and saw the knot of the Tefillin at the back of G-d's head.) But perhaps the story of Eliahu clarifies what is happening. G-d tells Moshe: You will not see my face, but you will see those things that follow behind me. You will see, as it were, G-d's wake. And G-d is not in the wind, and not in the fire, and not in the earthquake. All these are the wake created by G-d's passing. Do not be fooled by loud noises! Do not be taken in by raging forces, by fire and whirlwind as they rage and storm.

Do not fall under the spell of forces that spin wildly out of control. Do not fall under the spell of Eliahu's burden and gift of prophecy, without also digging down to unearth the human side - for even the most terrible of prophets has a human aspect.

Do not fall victim to the mind set that believes we must punish, that we must use anger to achieve G-d's will. Don't you see, G-d seems to be telling him, you can not change what is in the hearts of people by punishing them. Change rather your own self. Accept, accept and stand patiently by, ready to act when the moment ripens.

Eliahu, G-d seems to say, I'm sorry I made you the way I did. Let your human side emerge. Don't be so damned perfect all the time!

For where is G-d, finally? For the text tells us where G-d is not, but we are left to assume that G-d resides in the Kol Demamah Dakka (19:12).

The phrase Kol Demama Dakka is usually translated as "a still, small voice". But what does this phrase reveal when we take it apart?

Vayikra 10:3: Aharon's sons, Nadav and Abihu, were just destroyed by a fire from Heaven. Unlike the false prophets, the prophets of Baal, who sacrifice to their non-gods with impunity, a single false step toward the True G-d can be fatal for us. Even for the truly holy ones among us. Capter 10, verse 3, ends: Va-yidom Aharon. - And Aharon held his silence.

The word in our Haftara "Demama" is the same as the word that describes Aharon's response. And this is why Eliahu is Pinhas' retroactive spiritual forebear, even as he is his ancestor. Even as, perhaps, they are the same man.

Aharon "Yidom". He actively made himself maintain his silence, even in the face of the greatest of personal tragedies, as he had just watched his two older sons perish. And, for all the Achorai - the wake, the wind created as G-d passes by - for all that is impressive, yet it does not compare to Moshe's ability to calm G-d's passions, the rage, the furious need for revenge.

Aharon is the Man of Peace. The "Savlan" - the Patient One. Aharon brings peace to the world because, through his profound self-knowledge, he knows all humans by their inner nature. Aharon's deep understanding of those traits that make us All Too Human also gives him the strength to Yidom - to actively maintain his silence when others need him.

Eliahu gives vent to his rage, and the land is smitten with three years of drought, of famine, of devastation. This is the Big Picture, the response of a perfect man to the elevation of a highly imperfect king. Yet, in the house of the Widow, Eliahu embraces his own humanity, the Covenant of Peace. He recognizes the need to Yidom, to control these passions. All the punishments in the world will not prevent wickedness. Me'at min ha-ner dochhe harbe choshech. A little bit of light pushes away great quantities of darkness. A single act motivated by selflessness and compassion can truly save a life, and perhaps this one act, saving the Widow's son, does more to guarantee the future of Klal Israel than all the punishments that Heaven can rain down upon the heads of the Wicked.

The Midrash says, Great is Peace, because it says Bakesh shalom ve-rodfehu. Ask for Peace and pursue it. The true Man of G-d combines the zeal of a Rodef - a person chasing after someone else to murder him - with the quality of Aharon, of being Bakesh shalom: always seeking after Peace.

Kol Demama Daka - the small voice that is straining to be silent.

How easy it is to give vent to our passions! To punish, to criticize, to judge all the world harshly and to lash out. How difficult it is to maintain our silence in the interest of Shalom.

Elisha is a worthy successor to Eliahu. He is not distracted by the flames of the chariot, by the whirlwind. He watches and sees clearly as Eliahu ascends, thereby attaining a greater prophetic gift even than his Master.

It is so easy to fall prey to the Grand Gesture, whether in others, or whether we ourselves make it. Eliahu in the fiery chariot; Moshe on the mountaintop with the flame and smoke, the thunder and lightning; Joshua making sun and moon stand still; Abraham and Yitzhak at the Akeidah; Yaakov wrestling with the Angel; Yoseph lording over the vast land of Egypt. What powerful images these scenes evoke!

By contrast, Aharon's life hardly makes much of a movie. No miracles, no grand oratory, no romance or big battle scenes. A life of refusing to be governed by passions; a life of constant readiness to serve Klal Israel. A life of being Bakesh Shalom and Rodef Shalom.

This Haftara is only read in years when Parashat Pinhas falls on the shabbat before the Fast of 17 Tammuz. The sixteenth day of Tammuz was the day on which we worshipped the Golden Calf - a monumental cinematic extravaganza if ever there was one - The seventeenth day was the day on which Moshe broke the Luchot - the first set of Tablets. On this day, even the Torah itself fell silent. Was this the Peace or Peacefulness of those who strive to distance themselves from excessive passion, or the dark silence of an eternal tomb.

Aharon achieves his greatness by being ever patient, ever accepting, ever prepared to serve Klal Israel. But it is in Pinhas that the future of our nation resides - it is Pinhas and Yehoshua who will lead us forward in nationhood. A High Priest who is a murderer, together with a military leader who can not distinguish between revelry and battle.

But we are human - only human. And we must make the best of it.

And so G-d thrusts greatness upon Pinhas, forces on him the Covenant of Peace. The Covenant that Aharon possessed naturally. Now, immediately before the period leading up to Tisha Be'Av, Moshe literally throws in our face the Silence that is the consequence of excess of passion. Our relationship with G-d was based on a multitude of miracles, rather than on our understanding of our own nature. The Beit HaMikdash represents a kind of perfection that must, in time, leave this world, if we are to grow in our humanity. The first set of Luchot must be broken, because they are written by G-d. Only after they have been written by the Moshe - written, as it were, by each of us individually - only then can Torah truly enter our lives.

Eliahu, in order to truly become the Man of G-d, must learn G-d's Covenant of Peace.

So do we.

Yours for a better world.


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