July 25, 2024
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Elisha’s Oil Miracle: The Commonly Posed Question

People frequently ask why Elisha’s oil miracle for the widow (first part of Melachim II 4) is included in the haftarah of Parshat Vayera. After all, the major portion of the haftarah focuses on the story of Elisha bringing a miracle so that an older childless couple, the Ishah HaShunamit and her husband, can finally have a child (second part of Melachim II 4).

The reasons for the inclusion of the second story in the haftarah for Parshat Vayera are striking and obvious, as discussed in the next chapter. The parallel to Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu finally having a child, and the mortal threat to the child who is saved by the intervention of an angel, is quite apparent. Moreover, the story of Elisha and the Ishah HaShunamit often draws linguistically from the story of the message delivered to Avraham and Sarah.

The second story is quite long, and there is no apparent need to include the seemingly unconnected oil story. Why, then, is the story of the oil miracle read as part of the haftarah for Parshat Vayera?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Answer

Rav Shalom Rosner cites an answer from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik explains that in both stories, great Jewish figures are not solely concerned with issues of national interest, but also with the needs of individuals. Avraham Avinu emerges from the war against the four mighty Mesopotamian kings as a figure of international standing. Nonetheless, at the beginning of Parshat Vayera (Bereishit 18:1-8) he cares for the needs of the three individuals who appeared to him to be simple passersby. Similarly, in the oil story, Elisha is concerned about the plight of the poor widow even though he emerges from the war against Moav as a major figure of national standing.

Parallel to Sarah Imeinu

It has been suggested that the parallel between the story is just as Sarah Imeinu does not perceive herself worthy of the miracle of bearing a child in old age, so too the almana (widow) does not perceive herself as worthy of the oil miracle. It is for this reason that she does not amass sufficient vessels in which to pour the oil (Melachim II 4:3-5).

Parallel to Sedom

At TABC we developed an additional approach. The oil story reflects the statement that appears in Parshat Vayera—that Hashem chooses Avraham Avinu since he will teach his children to be engaged and immersed in justice and charity (Bereishit 18:19). Fairness and kindness are indeed the hallmarks of a Jew. Elisha certainly lives up to this ideal in the kindness he shows both to the widow for whom he performs the oil miracle and in helping the Ishah HaShunamit.

Moreover, the fact that the oil miracle is necessary to prevent a child from being taken as a slave by a creditor is quite a damning reflection on the state of justice in the Northern Kingdom. The fact that Elisha, despite his VIP status, is unable to make a fundamental change in the system (all he can do is facilitate a miracle to prevent a child from falling into the terrible system) reflects even worse on Malchut Yisrael.

Parshat Vayera sets forth the raison d’etre of the Jewish people: tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice. If a portion of our nation supports the practice of creditors seizing children as slaves as payment of an unpaid debt, then that portion of that nation does not deserve to live. Thus, in hearing this horrific story, one concludes that the days of the Northern Kingdom are numbered.

The fact that the story of the destruction of Sedom appears in Parshat Vayera strengthens this idea. The Northern Kingdom, to paraphrase Yeshayahu 1, has sunk to the level of Sedom and therefore deserves to be destroyed. It becomes clear that something is very wrong with society when neighbors stand by and permit a nearby child to be taken as a slave due to his parents’ unpaid debts. Most interestingly, Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 9:3) writes that “he has never heard of or seen a Jewish community that does not maintain a charity fund.” If a Jewish community does not have such a fund, Rambam implies that it is not worthy of calling itself a Jewish community.

Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu in Parshat Vayera show kindness and concern to passersby and thereby merit the miraculous continuity of the Jewish people with the birth of Yitzchak. The neighbors of the widow do not look after her and her family and thus fail to live up to the ideals upon which our people are founded and merit continuing to exist.

Additionally, just as Lot is saved in Sedom by his display of emunah (faith) and fidelity to Avraham Avinu’s ideals by inviting the malachim, so too the widow is saved only after she demonstrates her emunah by gathering the many vessels from her neighbors. The neighbors as well are granted the opportunity to redeem their negligent behavior by helping the widow by lending her their vessels.

It is interesting that in both cases, a door is closed. Lot closes his door to seal off the evil society of Sedom. Similarly, we may understand Elisha’s instruction to close the door as an expression and separation from the decadent society of Northern Israel.

Conclusion

The overall theme of the haftarah of Parshat Vayera is the centrality of tzedakah and mishpat. The widow and oil miracle, and the relatively subsequent destruction of Malchut Yisrael, bring to life how tzedakah and mishpat constitute the very lifeblood of our people. Tzedakah and mishpat to Am Yisrael are like oxygen and nourishment to any living organism. The inclusion of the oil miracle in the haftarah reminds us that the days are numbered for a Jewish society that, heaven forfend, does not live up to the ideals of tzedakah u’mishpat.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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