Sunday, July 6, 2014

Haftorat Pinchas: Prophet Elijah Walks at Midnight

Pinchas

(Haftorah: I Kings 18:46-18:21)

            Elijah the Prophet is a busy man. Since he never died, but rode off in a fiery chariot to Heaven, he functions in Judaism as a Divine Messenger, going to-and-from the World-to-Come, bringing news from Above and Below. He is the hero of this Shabbat’s Haftorah, and so, I was lucky for an audience.
            Elijah is not my favorite; no, not since my childhood. In our old, 1920s “Treasury of Biblical Tales, illustrated with full-color paintings by Milo Winter,” he was a harsh-looking, dark-browed, desert-dweller, wearing a rough garment, half cloak and half robe, belted tightly with the skin of a serpent. He never had time to linger, what with running faster than the king’s own chariot, deep into the Wilderness, to save his life from the assassins that Queen Jezebel sent on his trail.
            Both of us were on our best behavior tonight: it was well-past midnight when I cleared a chair for him in my cramped study—he sat, not happily, curled up in my old grey cloth office chair, next to the bookcase holding the works of Yeshayahu Leibovitz, another tough customer, as well as Yehuda Amichai’s poetry—a man of probity and kindness. We spoke in low voices, like thieves, suspicious of one another’s motives. I was worried about the Current Crisis in Israel, and eager to learn what the Prophet knew from Beyond, but could not press him too much; he might feel insulted, and leave abruptly.
            “What was it like, eating a cake baked on coals brought to you by ravens?” I asked. Food is always a good icebreaker, although this Prophet, lean and sunbaked as he was, did not look as though he ate very much. An errant scrap of turkey pastrami from my own dinner swam out from between my molars as I spoke, and I gulped some iced tea to cover my faux pas.
            “Hm—ashy, half-raw, and plain—what d’ye think, Rabbi?” returned the Prophet, putting just the slightest sarcastic spin on “Rabbi”; I knew that my being leftwing Conservative did not sit well with his 9th Century BCE worldview. Then again, one could hardly think that “Judaism” even existed then, either; his was just one tribe among many, compared to the Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, and whatever enemy-of-the-moment then existed. That gave me an idea.
            “Prophet of Israel—if I may respectfully call you that—do you have any advice on what Modern Israel should do in its current crisis?”
            “Crisis?” repeated Elijah, and his face grew worried. I knew that his eternal love of his People, despite their failings past and present, overrode any harsh judgments he might have of them. Perhaps this old battleax of a prophet could advise us, after all.
“Crisis? Listen to me, Young Man—“
--and here, I was happy and fortunate to sit at the feet of one of Ancient Israel’s finest prophets and teachers—
“There will never be a time when our People will dwell in complete safety; no, far from it. When Israel feels most secure, that is the time when our God will test them. We are not meant to ever dwell completely in peace, either within or without; we are to be an eternal stranger and sojourner among the nations, even as I, I alone, dwelt in the Wilderness, there amid thornbushes slashing and ravens croaking.”
He did not look at me; he looked out the window—at the moon? No, past it; his eyes shone with a divine inner light. This was the True Prophet, a great leader of Israel: alone, unappreciated, yet going about his holy life’s work in the only way he knew—
“Yet, no matter how alone I felt, there was always the Presence of God with me, always that self-same Message He brought—“
            “And what was that message, Elijah?” I asked, leaning forward, eager to hear the Word of God.
            His face was aglow, far beyond that of the street-lights that shone through the window. “’After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—I tell you, Young Man; d’ye hear me? I say, ‘after the fire, a still small voice.’ “
            “And that was your charge, to anoint Elisha,” I said, touching his hand gently.
            “No, no—don’t you see?” he said, shaking off my hand, and, grasping his shepherd’s crook, rising from the old grey chair,
“It was—it was—for me, to look into myself, to look into my heart of hearts, to find peace. Yes. That is what they must do. If they can look into themselves, to see that they must rip out this overweening Pride that blocks and sullies their souls, and return the Image of God back to its proper place, as I did—then All will be Well. Yes. All will be Well.”