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 prophet Elisha.

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.”1 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.2

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 possible. 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 aged couple.

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?

The Targum3 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 ways.

The manager of Ahab’s palace was a righteous man name Ovadiah (Obadiah).4 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 Zohar5 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.

Got Oil?

“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 as well.

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 G‑dly reality.6

Many Jewish laws and customs also follow this idea. Some examples:

1. 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 Zohar7 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.

2. 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.

The Failed Attempt

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 Talmud8 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 blessing.”

The blessing with the wine indeed helped, and all those who were sick were miraculously cured.9