Parshat Vayeira tells the story of the miraculous birth of
Isaac. Although Abraham and Sarah could never naturally have children, G‑d gave
them a child in their deep old age. Reflecting this, the haftarah recounts a similar miracle which was performed through the
Elisha had been the student of Elijah the prophet. Before
the ascent of Elijah to heaven, Elisha requested of his teacher that he be
granted “a double portion of
your spirit.” This was indeed fulfilled, and
Scripture enumerates twice as many miracles performed by Elisha as by his
teacher Elijah. Our haftarah recounts
three of these miracles.
The first miracle involved a widow
who was heavily in debt, and her creditors were threatening to take her two
sons as slaves to satisfy the debt. When Elisha asked her what she had in her
home, the widow responded that she had nothing but a vial of oil. Elisha told
her to gather as many empty containers as possibleץ.
She should then pour oil from her vial into the empty containers. She did as
commanded, and miraculously the oil continued to flow until the last empty jug
was filled. The woman would sell the oil for a handsome profit, and have enough
money to repay her debts and live comfortably.
The second miracle: Elisha would
often pass by the city of Shunem, where he would dine and rest at the home of a
certain hospitable couple. This couple even built a special addition to their
home, a guest room designated for Elisha's use. When the prophet learned that
the couple was childless, he blessed the woman that she should give birth to a
child in exactly one year’s time. Indeed, one year later a son was born to the
The third miracle: A few years
later, this miraculously born son complained of a headache and died shortly
thereafter. The Shunammite woman laid the lifeless body on the bed in Elisha’s
designated room, and quickly made her way to the prophet. Elisha came to the
woman’s home and miraculously brought the boy back to life.
Who were the
woman and her two sons?
as well as other Midrashic sources tell the background to this story:
During the reign of King Ahab, his
wife, Jezebel, was viciously hunting down all the prophets of G‑d and putting
them to death. At this time Elijah, the great prophet of that era, had decreed
a famine on the region until the king and his people would mend their wicked
The manager of Ahab’s palace was a
righteous man name Ovadiah (Obadiah).
During this time Ovadiah hid one hundred prophets in two caves and took full
responsibility for sustaining them. To this end he borrowed sizeable sums of
money, ironically from Jehoram, the son of Ahab. The money was lent to him with
interest. Although as the manager of the palace he could have taken provisions
from there to feed the prophets, Ovadiah refrained from doing so, as much of
Ahab’s wealth was gained illegitimately.
It was after Ovadiah’s passing
that his wife came to Elisha begging for help, as Jehoram was about to take her
two children as slaves. The Zohar tells us that Ovadiah’s wife
had visited the grave of her husband and desperately cried over the situation.
In response, Ovadiah on high visited the three forefathers (Abraham, Isaac and
Jacob), who told him to advise his wife that she should visit the prophet
Elisha, and he would help her.
“Elisha said to her, ‘What shall I
do for you? Tell me what you have in the house.’ And she said, “Your
maidservant has nothing at all in the house except a vial of oil.’”
In this interesting exchange,
Elisha was looking for something that the woman already had, upon which a
miracle could take effect. This idea can be linked to a concept that constantly
recurs in the Torah and Jewish life: If something spiritual is to affect the
physical, it needs to be “anchored” in something physical.
A foundation of Kabbalistic
teaching is that our world is a physical expression of G‑dly realities (or
“worlds,” as they are referred to). Anything that exists or occurs in this
world is because there is something within G‑dly reality that creates this existence
or occurrence. A miracle in the physical realm indicates that a G‑dly presence
has come forth in an unlimited way, breaking through all limitations and the
usual order in the supernal realm—thus breaking the order in the natural world
Yet the converse is not true: not
necessarily does everything in the spiritual realms percolate down into the
material one. There can be a possibility that a divine revelation, such as a
blessing, may remain in that realm and not take on a physical manifestation.
This is the concept behind many
biblical stories and events where the prophet was told, or sought on his own,
to do something physical to “carry” the spiritual vision, blessing or miracle
into the physical world, thus setting in motion the physical play-out of this
Many Jewish laws and customs also
follow this idea. Some examples:
The Code of Jewish Law instructs that at least a
little bread should be left on the table while Birkat Hamazon (the Grace After
Meals) is recited. The Zohar explains the reason for this is
that the blessing we are asking G‑d to bestow in connection to food (bread)
cannot “come to rest” unless there is some actual bread upon which it will do
so. The source it gives is our story with Elisha and the oil.
A time-honored custom among tzaddikim (holy individuals) is that a blessing would be given
“through” a physical item. It might have been a piece of challah, wine from kiddush or havdalah, honey cake, etc. The tzaddik
gave this to be eaten, and the person eating it would be helped. Sometimes the
object might be money, an object of clothing, or something else. The idea is
that this would be a physical medium for anchoring a blessing from above.
An interesting part of the last
story in the haftarah is the failed
attempt of Gechazi, Elisha’s servant, to revive the deceased lad. Elisha had
told him to take his staff and put in on the face of the lad, and he would
awaken. He did this, and it failed. Only when Elisha himself came was he able
to resurrect the boy. Why was this?
The Jerusalem Talmud explains that while Gechazi was
great in Torah learning, he had some serious shortcomings. One of them was that
he did not admit to the Jewish belief in techiyat
hameitim—the resurrection of the dead. When Elisha sent him with his staff
to resurrect the child, he was ordered not to speak to anyone: “If you meet
anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not answer him.” But
Gechazi did not believe that his mission was at all possible. When people met
him on the road and asked him where he was going, he mockingly replied, “I am
going to resurrect the dead.” When he returned to his master, Elisha sharply
told him: “I now know that even if the child would be merely sleeping, he would
not have awoken through you.”
Belief in the miracle is often a
condition for the miracle actually taking place. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe
once told a story of his ancestor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the
Alter Rebbe. One year, on the festival of Shemini Atzeret, many of those who
came to to the rebbe became very sick. In an unusual move, the Alter Rebbe
instructed that all the sick chassidim were to be brought to the synagogue for hakafot, the dancing with the Torah. As
this was taking place, the Alter Rebbe went into the sukkah to make kiddush.
He brought with him three chassidim and appointed them as emissaries. They were
to bring some wine from his kiddush
(mixed with other wine) to all those who needed it, and they would soon be
healed. The three chassidim entered the large synagogue and, after giving over
the rebbe’s words, made the following announcement:
“We have it by tradition from our
elders, who received this from their elders, that in order for a blessing to be
fulfilled, that the one being blessed must adhere to two conditions: 1) to have
simple faith in the blessing that he is being given, without doubting it in any
way; 2) to devote himself to following the directions in matters of Divine
service—i.e., in Torah learning and in good conduct—of the one giving him the
The blessing with the wine indeed
helped, and all those who were sick were miraculously cured.