On Eliyahu (Elijah) and the Still, Small Voice of Wisdom
Jewish scholar and Hebrew Bible scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the Old Testament prophet Elijah.
This week’s Shabbat Torah portion is called Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) and corresponds to the Haftorah reading from the Book of 1 Kings 18:1-39.
What do these two readings have in common and how are they relevant today?
First of all, they are both always read in the joyful month of Adar. The subject of both readings is idolatry and the dangers that idolatry entails. In the end, however, the Jewish people are saved – righteous.
For the euphoria surrounding the ascent of Moses to receive the 613 mitzvot (including the Ten Commandments) on Mount Sinai and the delay in his descent leads to impatience below and the making by the people of the Calf of Gold.
Similarly, at 9and century BCE Elijah (known in Hebrew as Eliyahu) warns the priests of Ba’al on another mountain, this time Mount Carmel, that they simply worship idols and that idol worship leads to monarchs such as Ahab and Jezebel, who bring death and destruction in their wake. And that nothing good will come of this kind of idolatrous worship based on superstition.
The story of Eliyahu and the False Prophets of Ba’al reminds me very much of my special friendship with Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen and his wife, Naomi, who helped build the State of Israel. in a variety of ways.
Last week, Naomi contacted me out of the blue on Erev Shabbat to tell me that she loved me and not to worry (this second part was very different from Naomi, for whom worry was an essential and necessary ingredient of life, keeping us on our toes and preventing us from becoming complacent).
The next thing I knew was that Shabbat was over and I had received a message in Hebrew on my smartphone, informing me of Naomi’s death and details of her burial on the Mount of Olives, with instructions for the time of 7 day shiva to follow.
Rabbanit Dr. Naomi Goldstein Cohen and her husband, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, lived near me on Mount Carmel itself and were synonymous with the modern history of Haifa and beyond.
As a baby, Shear Yashuv’s first words were “Eliyahu ha-bibi”, alluding to the refrain, “Eliyahu the prophet‘the first line of a song that is sung after the end of Shabbat, when Jews around the world hope to usher in the Messianic Age, with the Prophet Eliyahu as heralding that age.
The first time Shear Yashuv uttered this phrase was when the Great Rav Kook, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi during the British Mandate, stayed with the family on Mount Carmel, the same Mount Carmel where the Prophet Eliyahu had stayed. defeated the prophets of Israel. Baal. It would have been August 1928, when baby Shear Yashuv was nine months old.
The Book of Kings portrays the true prophet as someone who speaks with a “still, small voice.” Like Moses on Mount Sinai, according to 1 Kings 19, Eliyahu ‘went 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God…. And He said, ‘Come out and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind and after the wind an earthquake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a soft little voice.
The Cohens also lived on Horeb St on Mount Carmel and often experienced, like the whole neighborhood, storms, earthquakes and wild winds that were no stranger to the people of Mount Carmel. On one such occasion, the Carmel Choir, which I accompanied on the piano high up on Mount Carmel, was rehearsing Mendelssohn’s famous Oratorio, “Elijah,” based on the story from that week’s Haftorah reading.
We had just finished the trio: ‘Lift up your eyes to the mountains’ (Psalm 121) and were beginning ‘He watches over Israel’, when the lights went out, the power failed and a flash of lightning came through the window. Naturally, being pro, I continued to play as if nothing had happened. Didn’t we go through the 2n/a Lebanon war in Haifa, after all… what’s a flash between friends when the show has to go on?
It’s hard for us at 21st century to believe that these biblical descriptions of thunder, lightning and still small voices are only metaphors. Of course, these are metaphors. But they are also very real. Living in Haifa is a precarious enterprise, now as then. And the chief rabbi, Shear Yashuv, was particularly aware of the special significance of Eliyahu’s name. For he himself received this special additional name at the suggestion of the great Rav Kook.
In 1929, at the age of two, baby Shear Yashuv fell very ill, and after prayers led for him by the Chief Rabbi at the Kotel (Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem), the latter suggested giving the young fatally ill baby the additional name of Eliyahu. . That night, the baby’s condition improved and from then on he was known as Eliyahu Yosef Shear Yashuv.
Nearly 50 years after this incident, when Shear Yashuv was chosen to be Haifa’s next Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi along with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, they both happily acknowledged their very personal connection to Prophet Eliyahu. ‘whose life and work is associated with Mount Carmel and the city of Haifa.’
Shear Yashuv’s wife told me this story several times. She was a most wonderful woman, who loved the cut and thrust of arguments, debates and engaging people who stood up to her. I liked her very much, especially the fact that she was not interested in food, clothes or nice words. What she truly admired was the advancement of the Jewish people through family, integrity and women’s rights.
Like the true prophets of old, Naomi demanded a lot from her friends, but also gave a lot in return. Arriving in the new state at age 19 in 1949 from a large New York Orthodox family, she helped start a number of businesses that would help young women, and especially new immigrants, to find their own voice.
But Naomi’s voice was never itself shrill – it was “the still, small voice” she had learned to cultivate on the mountaintop of Carmel, home to so many brave and fiery individuals, but above all known for the story of Eliyahu and his struggle with the forces of idolatry, power, might and lies.
And so we say, as we fill a special Passover cup every year for the same Eliyahu, let him drink overnight when he visits every Jewish home wherever he is around the world, “The next year in Jerusalem, next year in rebuilt Jerusalem.
If you want to go deeper into this topic, my English version of the biography of Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa is published by Urim Press and a Rabbanit Dr. Naomi Cohen’s recent life recording is accessible in Modern Hebrew here.