Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Haftorah of Torah Portion Metzora: The Prophet Elisha

Metzora

            My years of dealing with this parsha/Torah portion have drained the intellectual well dry: its tiresome subject is leprosy, again. For a change of pace, therefore, I turn to Haftarat Metzora (though we will not be chanting it this year, in favor of Malachi, since it is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Pesach). Its livelier protagonist is the prophet Elisha, who prophesied between approximately 892-832 BCE. Despite his arguable reputation for performing greater and more numerous miracles than his teacher, Elijah, Elisha has gotten far less “Biblical publicity” over the years.

Why is Elijah better-known than Elisha? It is because Elijah risked his life by ignoring the wicked King Ahab’s prohibition against circumcision. He is, therefore, for all time honored by being spiritually present at every brit milah/covenant of circumcision, with a special chair designated for him, on the off chance that that babe should turn out to be Messiah. Since Elijah was designated the harbinger of Messiah, it makes sense to have him present at the ceremony. And of course, we are all familiar with Elijah’s presence at every Passover Seder meal—here again, with the arrival of spring, we anticipate Messiah’s coming, so it is only right and proper that Elijah be there.
           
Elisha’s prophetic style and career were different from those of his taciturn, wilderness-dwelling, hairshirt-wearing master, Elijah. II Kings makes a point of listing the several miracles Elisha performed, from making an iron ax-head float (II Kings 6:1-7) to reviving a dead boy (4:8). His prophetic career began when Elijah suddenly appeared, unceremoniously, while Elisha was plowing his wealthy father’s field with a team of oxen (2:1-18).

“You will succeed me as a prophet of God,” ordered Elijah, “Now, come along.”

Elisha was understandably anxious about being able to follow in Elijah’s considerable footsteps, and begged him for twice the prophetic power Elijah possessed. Elijah replied that, if Elisha was granted to see Elijah’s departure from earth, it would mean that God heeded his request. Suddenly, Elisha saw a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses: he fell on his face to the ground. Elijah mounted the chariot, and was carried off, alive, transmogrified into heaven. It is highly significant that he never died: that gave him the power to continually act as God’s messenger between earth and heaven, the role he fills in Jewish folklore. In the meantime, he left Elisha his cloak, source of his prophetic power.
           
There is one episode in Elisha’s career I, like many other students of Scripture, find peculiar. All men—even prophets—are sensitive about one personal failing or lack; in Elisha’s case, he was bald.

Once, he was approaching the town of Bethel, when a group of children saw him and called out insultingly, “Go away, Baldy! Go away, Baldy!”

Angry, Elisha cursed them in God’s Name. Suddenly, two she-bears emerged from the woods and mauled forty-two of the children (2:23-24).
The rabbis in the Talmud were hard-pressed to defend this action: they explained it by taking the Hebrew word for ‘tween-aged children (n’arim) and etymologically interpreted it, saying that “These children lacked the fear of (m’nuarin) and respect for religion (Talmudic Tractate Sotah, p. 46b).


It is a strange story, indeed, but shows us that even prophets have limits to their patience and understanding. Anyone who could call on God’s Name to work wonders was a person to be reckoned with, even Elisha, one of the most patient of Biblical prophets!