Shabbat candles: 8:08 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1
Our parsha begins with the reward that Pinchas receives for his zealotry. It is important to internalize Pinchas’ uniqueness and understand that the special covenant of peace that he received and the many miracles that helped him [Sanhedrin 82b] were given specifically to a person of his rare qualities.
The only other person who seems to have been able to exhibit Pinchas’ approach to zealotry is Elijah the Prophet. This similarity may be the basis for the Talmudic opinion that Elijah and Pinchas are actually the same person [Baba Batra 122b]. For the haftarah this week, the Rabbis chose the section from Kings I dealing with God’s instructions to Elijah to pass the mantle of prophetic leadership to Elisha. Interestingly, the parsha also discusses the passing of the leadership from Moses to Joshua.
There are many similarities and parallels between these two pairings. Moses and Elijah are similar in many ways and Joshua and Elisha, their successors, essentially have the same name, as both names start with one of God’s names (Joshua, “Yud Hei Vav”; Elisha, “Alef Lamed”) and end with the same letters (“Shin Ayin”).
The haftarah begins with the apparent victory of Elijah. He proves to the people that “Hashem is the Lord,” avenging Jezebel’s murder of the true prophets by killing the prophets of the Ba’al. This enables the Jewish people to regain the blessing of rain. Elijah even restores a degree of normalcy to his relationship with the King, Ahab. But, Jezebel swears to kill him in revenge. Elijah, at once, shows despair as well as the eagerness to be brave and zealous in the service of God.
God gives Elijah three missions to accomplish before completing his role as his generation’s prophetic/religious leader. The first is to anoint Hazael as king over Aram, the second is to anoint Yehu ben-Nimshi as king over Israel, and the third is to appoint Elisha ben-Shafat as the next prophet [I Kings 19:15-16]. These three leaders would later have a joint role. They will kill off hordes of people from the nation (those who had bowed to Ba’al) leaving only 7,000 people. The nation as it was known would essentially cease to exist, leaving only a cadre of especially righteous people.
Scripture does not state explicitly how Elijah reacted to these instructions, but clearly a change occurred which prevented this terrible prophecy from being fulfilled. A close look at the verses demonstrates that Elijah changes the order of the completion of the missions. The third mission given to Elijah became the first — the passing of the mantle to Elisha [I Kings 19:19]. Elisha, in a way very different from that of his predecessor, will continue to fulfill the other missions. He is not commanded to punish the people, and to the extent that it will be necessary, only Hazael, the enemy king, will do so. A significant change has developed, but there is even more to this change to this than meets the eyes.
By examining the outcome, especially in relation to Elisha, and by utilizing some common sense, we can offer a suggestion as to what occurred. God’s instructions shock Elijah into a realization that zealotry can be extremely dangerous, for few people can fully live up to the moral challenges that are thrust upon them. As a result, Elijah regrets the extent to which he had embraced zealotry, and works to prevent the terrible prophecy from being realized. He does this by first passing on the mantle to his close disciple and spiritual inheritor, Elisha, who shows that it is possible to bring the people to a significant level of repentance by employing a pleasant demeanor and uniting the hearts of the sons and the fathers. This is symbolized by Elisha’s request with which the Haftarah concludes. Before accompanying Elijah, Elisha asks permission to kiss his mother and father [I Kings 19:20]. This simple personal act does not seem worthy to find its way into Scripture — unless, of course, it symbolizes the essence of the change. Indeed, the approach of hugs and kisses is replacing zealotry. This is an important message for all generations.
Rabbi Yosef Carmel is rabbinical dean of the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.