Melachim Bet

We just can't stop learning! ...The Bekiut Nach class of 5766 in a quest to complete Nevi'im Rishonim

Thursday, June 29, 2006

More on Chapter 4
4:1-8 The Miracle of the Oil

A Loan has its Limits.

The story begins with a disturbing and difficult glimpse of the socio-economic reality within ancient Israel. A family falls on hard times and borrows money. Maybe the family is still not earning money, and the interest builds up. Maybe the lender has already taken some of the family's property or home furnishings. Now, the lender – the loanshark - threatens the family that if they cannot pay, he will take way their children to be sold as slaves.

The Torah warns about this in Sfer Shemot when it talks about interest – known as "Neshech" because it bites – "noshech." The Torah explicitly instructs us that this activity of loan-sharking is forbidden. But that is the unfortunate reality here, despite the Torah's warning. Unfortunately this reality of slavery seems to have repeated itself at other times. Yirmiyahu, (ch.34) urges the people to release their Jewish slaves. Nehemia too, in difficult economic times , when people are taking loans on the security of their children and wives, engages in a campaign to put an end to the human trafficking. Nehemia has two claims. First (see 5:8) he tries to persuade the crowds. He talks about when we were in Babylon. There, the Jewish community set itself to the task of freeing enslaved Jews. In our own country will we be our own oppressors? Second, he sets a personal example and forgives the loans that he himself had issued to others. By setting that personal example, others followed and eventually all the enslaved Jews were returned to freedom.

A Miracle has its Limits

In our opening story, and then again at the end of the Perek, we meet once again Elisha's circle of Bnei Neviim. We seem to find a pattern in which time after time, Elisha performs miracles in order to assist this group:

2:18-22 Sweetening the water in Jericho
4:1-8 – The miracle of the oil
4:38-41 The poison in the pot
4:42-43 Providing bread
6:1-7 finding a submerged axe

There would appear to be a pattern of Elisha assisting this group in very worldly matters like food and basic necessities. Clearly, we see here two hallmarks of Elisha: his social ease – Elisha is always surrounded by people; on good terms with the people and with royalty etc. And second, his miracles which he uses rather casually. We shall talk about the reason for these miracles at a later date, but for now, we should simply focus on this pattern.

Elisha here commands the woman to "close the door" and apparently she is to keep pouring in one continuous action – that is why her son is passing her pots all the time. One wonders why she had to close the door and why she must pour continuously. Moreover, it would appear obvious in this perek that Elisha would not have performed this miracle if she had no oil whatsoever. Elisha begins by saying "What do you have in your home?" To which she replies "nothing except a tiny amount of oil, enough to anoint myself with." At this point, Elisha focuses upon the very meagre possession that she does own, and uses that to perform the miracle. Why is this the method?

"The honour of a miracle is that it happens in a hidden manner." (Rashi #4)

"The Navi asked here 'What do you have in the house' because it is the practice of Neviim to enact a miracle based on an existent thing, so that there should not be a miracle ex nihilo (Something from nothing)" (Abarbanel)

"And this is the manner of all miracles in Torah and Neviim that man does that which he can perform, and the rest is left to God…" (Ramban Bereshit 6:19)

There is a fascinating hybrid that takes place here. On the one hand, an incredible miracle will happen here, in which the oil will multiply exponentially. On the other hand, it takes place "in private, in secret" whereby we do not watch as the oil multiplies – the pot just continues to pour in a fixed flow - and it all takes place behind closed doors. There must be "raw materials;" – since Ma'aseh Bereshit, God does not create ex nihilo! It "looks" natural. Man has to pour; the pots and jars had to be borrowed – and had they borrowed more pots, there would have been even more oil. But God DOES perform the miracle, undoubtedly.

This is a classic example of how man must do his part, but God can also create blessing in the places that are hidden from the eye.

Eshet Ovadia - עבדך היה ירא את ה'

There is a lovely Midrash here that asks as to who this woman might have been. Who was here husband who is described here as particularly "God fearing?" Maybe the Midrash is bothered as to why this family in particular were blessed with a miracle. The Shunamite woman performs hachnassat Orchim and (like Avrham and Sarah) is rewarded with a child. But what did this woman do to deserve a miracle of this enormity? The Midrash identifies this family as the family of Ovadiah, Achav's personal assistant! Ovadia harboured 100 nevi'ei Hashem and provided for them in a time of terrible religious persecution. Obviously, this family deserves the miracle!

Now Midrashim do not have no textual basis. In fact they are frequently logical and textual. This is no exception. Obviously there is the connection that Ovadia is described in Melachim I 18:3 as "greatly God fearing" - but there is more! Why would someone God fearing get into such debt? The answer is that he had to support the 100 Nevi'ei Hashem who he had kept in hiding in the cave! (see Melachim I 18:4) He needed finance, and he took a loan! [See Rashi who clims the the lender was none other than Achav, who clearly was oblivious to the purpose of his funds. Thick irony... tzarickh iyun!]

But maybe Chazal were also sensitive in this story to the style of the miracle, where food is produced "in secret" much as Ovadia kept Neviim behind closed doors, and Elisha tells the woman that she should sell the oil and live off that which is extra. Now, in a turn of fate, God returns the favour and provides food for her and her family!

Appendix: On the fringes of the Shunnamite story - The world of the Neviim

There are a number of points in this perek give us some information as to the way that the Navi – or at least Elisha - functioned in society

First is that clearly Elisha travels from place to place. Much lake Shmuel before him – see Shmuel I ch.7:15-17; ch. 9:9, 15-25 - he is always travelling, and we imagine, preaching and helping people.

Second: Elisha asks the Shunamite woman if he can "Talk to the king or to the head of the army? Once again, we see Elisha's connections with the ruling echelons, with High Society. Later in Melachim we shall see his interaction with the king in a number of stories.

Third. Clearly Shabbat and Chagim are times to connect with God and spirituality. This is performed by going to visit the Navi. The Shunnamite's husband says to her

"Why are you visiting him today? It is not Rosh Chodesh nor is it Shabbat." (4:23)

Rosh Chodesh as a day for visiting the prophet - one assumes, to hear his wisdom – and this tells us a great deal about the role of the prophet AND about the nature of Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh as a day of the spirit, a day for limmud Torah.