The Religious Zealot’s Tragedy

“Why are you here, Eliyahu?”

A lifetime of religious passion culminating in a miraculous stand on Har Carmel has accomplished nothing. Eliyahu goes to Sinai suicidal, broken and alone.

“I have been jealous for God. The children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant and I am the only one left.”

God is unimpressed. Jealous for God? The only one left?

We read this last week, but only in Israel, as if this is the land where we most need this story. I was in Eli, groud zero of the latest battle in the culture wars, and it was two days after the Jerusalem gay pride parade.

“And a great wind blasted the mountains and broke the rocks 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 still small voice.”

Even at Sinai, God no longer interacts through fiery drama.

“Why are you here, Eliyahu?” the voice asks again. Try another answer, it implies. If you really think you’re Israel’s last righteous man, you’re part of the problem. Surely you don’t think it’s God’s will that you make people suffer in His name.

“I have been jealous for God. The children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant and I am the only one left.”

Eliyahu cannot hear the implied messages in God’s soft voice. Eliyahu’s failures do not lead him to introspection.

Because all Eliyahu could do was criticize Israel, he is unable to save them. The Ten Tribes he tried to guide are lost.

The story is written by Yirmiyahu, the prophet of Judea, whose origin story we read tomorrow. Yirmiyahu rejects the job of criticizing Israel, but is forced into it. Anybody who wants to criticize Israel is unqualified for the job.

Against his will, Yirmiyahu is called “to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Yirmiyahu will help form modern Judaism, which survived the Exiles. Eliyahu’s Northern Tribes did not.

Tomorrow’s reading includes God’s promise to hurt those who hurt Israel.

Midrashich literature presents a post-death Eliyahu who is the man of compassion and understanding that the pre-death Eliyahu failed to be.

Religious and anti-religious zealotry come in many forms. There are always things to criticize about the Jews. But sometimes critics seem to relish the act of criticizing, and do more harm than good. The criticisms should rarely be louder than the praise and the love.

The Haftorah concludes:

“I remember the devotion of your youth,

how as a bride you loved me

and followed me through the wilderness,

through a land not sown.”

That praise is true of today’s Jews too, who returned to their land despite all the difficulties. May our criticisms of them never rise above the levels of our love and praise.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.
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