June 14, 2024
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Parshat Vayera

The haftarah selection for this week’s parsha is based upon the stories of Elisha and two righteous women whose sufferings (poverty/barrenness) were relieved through the miraculous deeds of the navi(prophet). There is, however, a difference in traditions between the Ashkenazi and Sepharadi minhagim as to how much of the stories are read.

According to Sepharadi custom, the first 23 pesukim(verses) of the fourth perek are chanted, which include the first story (of the impoverished widow) and the first half of the second story (of the wealthy Shunamite).. The Ashkenazim read 38 pesukim from the chapter that include Elisha’s resuscitation of the young lad, the end of that story.

Although we might wonder why the Sepharadi chachamim would leave their readers “hanging” in the middle of the dramatic story, their approach is quite logical. They limit the reading to 23 verses, following the tradition suggested by Chazal to keep the haftarah at a length of about 21 pesukim, whenever possible, three verses for each Torah aliya (on Shabbat). Seemingly, Sepharadi custom focuses upon the fact that Hashem rewards the righteous, as He did with Avraham. The widow, whose husband risked his life to save the lives of 100 nevi’im, finds repayment for that sacrifice by the navi whose miracle saved her and her sons. Similarly, the barren Shunamite, who generously provided shelter and nourishment for the itinerant prophet, is rewarded with a son by the miracle prophesied by Elisha. Both stories connect closely to that of Avraham and Sarah, whose righteousness was rewarded by being granted both wealth and a miracle birth of their son.

Ashkenazi scholars chose to complete the second narrative for more of a reason than just providing a satisfying ending. The final section includes the recovery of the Shunamite’s son from death, an event reminiscent of Yitzchak’s “survival” from near-death at the Akeida.

The Rav, however, points to a salient lesson that we should learn from the events found in the final section of the Haftarah. In wondering why the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10; 2) includes Elisha’s attendant, Geichazi, as among the most wicked who had forfeited any share in Olam Habah, the Rav focuses upon the clear contrast between the saintly navi and his apprentice. Elisha, a prophet who used his gifts to help the downtrodden and the suffering, did so in the most modest and private way. He tells the impoverished widow to close the door of her house before the miraculous oil would fill the empty jars; he reveals the promise of a son to the barren Shunamite woman only in private, at the entrance to her house.

And, as the story proceeds, we learn of how Elisha’s revival of the young son was performed only in his upper chamber, without even the presence of the mother. He also instructed Geichazi to hurry to the stricken child and greet no one nor respond to anyone. No one should know where or why he was going—it would be a secret; it would be a private miracle, performed in the most modest way. But Geichazi failed in his mission, as the child remained lifeless, despite the attendant’s placement of Elisha’s staff on the boy, as he had been charged to do.

The Chachmei Kabbalah contend that Geichazi did indeed inform others of what would occur. Upon his return to summon Elisha (following his inability to revive the son), Geichazi told everyone about the miracle he was about to perform. When Elisha arrived back to Shunam, he found the house surrounded by curious onlookers who were told of the impending miracle. It was clear that the miracle was not wrought by the staff—but by the righteous person!

Geichazi’s failure to learn from Elisha, despite the many years he served in the presence of such holiness, was what our Tannaim saw to be inexcusable. To tend to a man whose life was dedicated to quietly giving to others and yet to use God’s gifts as a tool for self-aggrandizement, reflected a complete lack of sensitivity to the holiness of the navi who was the very personification of sanctity. His inability to see that was unforgivable.

Hashem grants each of us divine gifts to better the lives of others. Indeed, this was the story of Avraham as well. Learning to do so will bring us closer to true holiness.

And that, my friends, is our challenge.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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