Friday, July 11, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5774–Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow and Hear the Still Small Voice

It won’t happen again for another 21 years in 5795 – the opportunity to read the haftarah for parashat Pinkhas when it falls before 17 Tammuz and the start of the three weeks. It comes and goes in spurts. We recently had the opportunity in 5771, 5768, and 5765. Prior to that it last happened in 5744 and 5741, and then back in 5727. So, this being the last chance for the next 21 years, I thought I would take the opportunity to write and muse once again upon the haftarah for parashat Pinkhas from I Kings 18:46-19:20.

Our haftarah picks up the story of Elijah right after Elijah has seen to the slaughter of the prophets of Ba'al and Asherah after his confrontation with them at Mount Carmel, in which G"d's power is so starkly demonstrated. Elijah flees from King Ahab, whose wife Jezebel has sent Elijah a note that she intends to see Elijah killed for what he has done. (As background, Ahab had taken yet one step further in leading Israel astray as his father and predecessors had done. He married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, and worshipped her god Ba'al, and even had a temple erected to Ba'al in Samaria. Elijah the prophet harangues and troubles Ahab, and eventually challenges the prophets of Ba'al to a "contest" between their "god" and G"d. Guess who wins.)

Elijah is so frightened, he flees into the wilderness, where he asks G"d to take his life. An angel comes to Elijah and manifests food for the starving and tired Elijah. The word of G"d comes to Elijah when he goes to sleep in a cave. Elijah tells G"d that he alone is left of G"d's prophets to chastise Ahab and Israel for forsaken their covenant. G"d then asks Elijah to "step outside" and stand before G"d. A great wind blows, splitting rocks and mountains. Yet G"d was "lo b'ruakh" -- not in the wind. Then an earthquake. Yet G"d was "lo ha'ra'ash" -- not in the earthquake. Fire follows earthquake, and again, G"d was "lo ba'eish" - not in the fire. Then, after the fire, a "kol d'mamah dakah" --a voice, silent and thin. As some translate, a "soft murmuring sound." Or, more eloquently, "a still, small voice."

When I first wrote about this back in 5765, I stopped here and focused on those words. This time around, I’d like to continue on a bit in the haftarah before I circle back to here.

[It’s interesting to note that the cave where Elijah sought refuge is located at Mt. Horeb. i.e. Sinai. An interesting place for yet another session of Divine manifestations through wind, fire, and earthquake.]

When Elijah heard the sound, he come out of the cave and G”d asked him “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah answers that he is zealous for G”d, that Israel has forsaken G”d, killed G”d’s prophets, and are coming for him. G”d instructs Elijah to anoint Hazael as King of Aram, Jehu as King of Israel, and Elisha to be a prophet to replace Elijah. (Yes, G”d is having Elijah anoint a King of a country that is an enemy of Israel, presumably so that this country might punish Israel for its transgression and help them see the truth and bring them back to G”d.) Elijah seeks out Elisha who was out plowing in a field with 12 oxen. Elijah places his mantle of prophecy on Elisha, who then asks to be allowed to say goodbye to his parents. Elisha goes back and slaughters the twelve oxen, uses their yokes for wood to start a fire, and boils the ox meat so that the people might eat. Then he went off with Elijah to be his apprentice.

Not that I’ve dug all that deeply, but I haven’t found much from a Jewish perspective commenting on Elisha’s actions. (There is a parallel in the story of David, found in II Samuel 24:22 in which yokes and other paraphernalia are used as wood to sacrifice oxen for an offering. I think the connection is tenuous at best, since Elisha’s slaughter was not a ritual offering. In addition, these oxen and wood are being offered to David as a gift. David refuses the gift of the oxen and plow in this case, insisting he pay for them, saying he cannot sacrifice that which has cost him nothing. So David buys the oxen etc. and then sacrifices them. G”d responds to David’s sacrifice by stopping a plague that had befallen Israel.) Elisha had a party, not a sacrifice to G”d (though one might argue that Elisha was about to give up his own life to be a prophet of G”d.)

“Slaughter the Oxen and Burn the Plow” has attracted any number of commentaries from the Christian side of things.  They see it as an act of ultimate submission to G”d’s will. Elisha has demonstrated, through an act he was not asked to do, how willing he is to go into the service of G”d, and effectively sever his connection to his life up to that point. Elisha leaves himself nothing of his old life of which to come back to were he to abandon his charge to be a future prophet. Elisha basically throws himself a going-away party for all his family, friends and neighbors, using nothing but his own property (and effectively all of his worth) to do so. For those “born-again” types, or for those called to be missionaries or to be in G”d’s service, it’s a model. The Christian scriptures provide some support for  this viewpoint. Luke seems to have Jesus refer to this incident in Luke 9:61-62.

61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (NRSV)

I wonder if the interpretation in Luke is actually reflective of Jewish thought at the time of Jesus – i.e. would Jesus have really used a parallel to the story of Elisha slaughtering the oxen and burning the plow in describing what was required to be a follower of the Kingdom of G”d? I’ve not come across similar sentiments from a  Jewish perspective, or much discussion at all about Elisha’s slaughtering of the oxen and burning the plow – so if you, dear reader, know of any, I’d love to learn about it.

Elisha’s actions were a statement, of that there can be little doubt. What that statement was is a matter of speculation. Perhaps he was saying “from now own, my food will come from G”d, I’ve no need for the oxen and my plow.”  Perhaps, as some speculate, it was his ultimate break with his old life so that he could start his new life. Perhaps it was a gesture of magnanimity to his family, friends, and neighbors. “I will no longer need this, here, partake of it.” Perhaps it was a giant FU to the hard life of a farmer (not that he expected the life of an apprentice to a prophet to be any easier.) It could also  be a more vindictive “I’m not going to need these anymore, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to leave them all to you.” I imagine many of his family, friends, and neighbors we appalled by his seeming wastefulness of resources. Those oxen and that plow might have done a great deal more for the community after Elisha left it than the satisfaction of food for one nice going-away party. Suffice to say I’m not entirely sure that Elisha’s motives were all pure. I suppose when G”d’s prophet (and pretty much the only one left standing at the time) comes and chooses you to be his apprentice – and at G”d’s direct command to do so – you pretty much don’t argue. You also might feel just a bit haughty as a result. “Hey, I’m gonna be Elijah’s replacement! I can afford to waste some oxen and wood on a party. Even if they only ate some of the meat for the party, and somehow managed to preserve the rest for a while, it’s a safe bet those oxen and that plow would have yielded far more sustenance if they had been given to someone else to use. This is another reason I am suspicious of the reference in Luke. I ask my Christian friends, do you really think Jesus would encourage this somewhat wasteful act as being symbolic of devotion to G”d? I think he’d likely have come down on the side of allowing those oxen and that plow to continue to provide food for the community for years to come. Maybe all this is precisely why the Jewish commentators avoided it?

In all fairness to Elisha, he does a pretty great job as Elijah’s apprentice and successor. It’s not fair to judge him based on this one act at the very beginning of his career as a prophet. Yet the story is there, and it remains fair game for analysis. I know I’m going to be spending more time looking into this part of the story. However, now it’s time to circle back to my thoughts from 5765 – the still, small voice is calling.

I have mused upon this theme many times--the idea that we are all looking for the big miracle, the splitting asunder of the sea, fire and thunder from the mountain, and, as a result, we miss the everyday miracles all around us. Amid the hubbub of modern life we try to listen for G"d's voice. Yet all too rarely do we take the time to isolate ourselves from the din, so that we can truly hear a "kol d'mamah dakah." (Elijah, as a prophet, was pretty much a solitary figure. Elisha, on the other hand, mingled with the people. Yet who is truly the better model for hearing the still small voice?)

A 12th century manuscript attributed to a German Rabbi, Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, relates the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a great rabbi who lived about a thousand years ago, just before the crusades began. The bishop of Mainz insisted that Rabbi Amnon renounce his faith and become a Christian. Rabbi Amnon repeatedly refused. Perhaps frustrated by the continuing effort, and aware of the approach High Holy Days, Rabbi Amnon asks the Bishop to grant him three days to think things over, which the Bishop does. Rabbi Amnon immediately regrets having left the Bishop and others with the impression he would even consider renouncing G"d and Judaism. After three days, Rabbi Amnon refuses to go to the Bishop when summoned, and so he is forcibly taken. He asks that his tongue be cut out for even saying he would consider renouncing G"d, but the Bishop said he was more irate for what the Rabbi's legs had done, or rather not done, in not returning when summoned. Whereupon Rabbi Mainz is subjected to having his limbs chopped off, piece by piece, refusing each time to convert. Then the Rabbi was sent home, along with his cut-off limbs. Shortly after, when Rosh Hashanah has come, Rabbi Mainz asks his family to bring him to the synagogue, even broken and bloody as he was. Just before the kedushah, the sanctification, was about to be said by the Hazzan, Rabbi Amnon asks the Hazzan to stop so that Rabbi Amnon might sanctify G"d's name. Rabbi Amnon says "Thus to our sanctification prayer shall ascend, for You, our G"d, are King." He then proceeds to create and recite the "unetaneh tokef" prayer on the spot, after which he dies and disappears. Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appears in a vision to Rabbi Kalonimos ben Meshullam, another great sage of Mainz, and teaches him the words of the unetaneh tokef and instructs that it be added to the liturgy and taught to all Jews everywhere. Or so the story goes.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one that many find discomforting. It is the one that contains that "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die; who by fire and who by water..." etc. the prayer reminds us at the end "repentance, prayer and tzedakah shall temper the severe decree."

At the beginning of the prayer, the holiness and awesomeness of this day is declared, along with G"d's greatness and sovereignty. G"d is recognized as the One who judges and hold us to account. Then this prayer, already imbued with brilliant poetic language and imagery, tells us "the great shofar is sounded, and a thin voice of stillness is heard."

וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָדוֹל יִתָקַע. וְקוֹל דְמָמָה דַקָה יִשָמַע

Uv'shofar gadol yitaka, v'kol d'mamah dakah yish'ma.

Think about it. A loud noise is made, but that is not what we hear. It is the still, small voice that we hear. It is not in the majesty and pomp that have come to characterize our High Holy Days services that G"d is to be heard. It is in the silences. Now, this could be a rather frustrating for those who, like me, are directing choirs for the High Holy Days. Yet I take comfort in knowing that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer shows us that we must still make the great sound. Can one truly recognize the silence wherein we might find G"d if there is no noise with which to contrast it? Even G"d finds it necessary to precede the "thin voice of stillness" with wind and rain and thunder and earthquake and fire.

And so, while this week's haftarah might teach us about the "kol d'mamah dakah" -- that G"d is to be found in the silence, we should also learn that, like all things in Judaism, there is a balance. This Shabbat, why not use the hubbub and brouhaha of the week as the shofar that calls your attention to the need to listen for G"d in the still, small voices that can often be found on Shabbat--sometimes only during Shabbat. Greet the Shabbat Bride with loud song, like the sound of the great shofar. Then listen for the rustlings of her bridal gown, and strive to hear G"d's voice within.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2014 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

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