Ariella Nadel
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The story of Elijah is an urgent lesson for today

The 'prophet of truth,' consigned for his zealousness to an eternity of encounters, is now a harbinger of the hope we desperately need
Bol, Ferdinand. Angel Appearing to Elijah. (ca. 1642)

Generations ago there was a huge hafgana, a rally, held a bit to the east of Haifa. Almost everyone was there, even the king. It was a time of complexity. There was economic prosperity but the nation had lost its grounding. They were a people divided both in politics and in soul.

The organizer was a prophet, a visionary. He accused the people of dancing between two truths. He promised if they came to the rally the real truth would be revealed. Its revelation would come about in such a way that would compel their return to who it was they were supposed to be. A showdown was proposed. Whichever side could bring fire down from heaven would be declared the emissary of the truth. The people waited and watched.

The first side presented. 450 men strong. They cried, they pleaded, they danced. Yet their actions were met by silence.

In the waning hours of the day, the second side took over – a side comprised of the prophet. With great fanfare he called out to the heavens in the name of his ancestors and in the name of his G-d. Down from the heavens came a fire which brought to its observers clarity about the truth. The nation was happy. In good spirit and with a renewed sense of their purpose, they returned to their homes. The king rode back to his palace with the prophet of truth running beside him.

All it took was one day for the lesson to be forgotten. The vision of the nation that had been so clear the night before once again became clouded. The king decided to resume his battle with the truth and with the prophet who had brought down fire from the heavens.

The prophet of truth, Elijah, was depressed. How could his mission have gone so awry in such a short amount of time? Distraught, he ran away from his nation, crisscrossing the land to arrive at the mountain of G-d in the desert.

From the heavens, G-d initiated conversation with Elijah. With a sonorous voice, He asked, “Why are you here?” By implication reminding Elijah, that while he was a prophet of truth, he was not at liberty to cease listening to his people.

The prophet responded with angst and despair. He had acted zealously for G-d, had presumed success and, now, felt alone, hunted and misunderstood.

In response, a huge ball of fire came from the heavens scorching the skies; a great bough-breaking wind shook the trees and the ground trembled beneath the prophet. Elijah pulled his cloak over his eyes, hid in the crevices of the rock on the mountain of G-d and waited for G-d to speak.

But there was silence. Stillness. Quiet. It was as if G-d had held a finger to his lips and all of nature had acquiesced. The prophet continued to wait.

Then from the still silence, emerged a sonorous voice resuming the conversation. “Why are you here?” The prophet of truth, responded exactly as he had done before – his answer unchanged by the lesson of G-d’s voice emerging not from fire, not from wind, not from the trembling earth but from the still, from the quiet, from the silence.

G-d ordered Elijah to return to the heart of the land and to appoint his replacement. This prophet, Elisha, began his mission not in a large rally with cries to the heavens but with a kiss to his family and a feast for his community. He was a prophet of the people.

An eternity of encounters

And what about Elijah, the prophet of truth? G-d saw that Elijah’s vision had been blinded by his principles. While he had heralded the truth for his people, he had failed to hearken to the needs of each person. He had also failed to understand how to effectuate true change. A fire from the heavens might ignite a fire but it would not be sufficient to stoke its flames.

According to tradition, G-d never gave up on Elijah. A man who could give so wholly of himself to remind his people of their mission was someone to work with. However, this prophet of G-d needed to broaden his vision, to hone his interpersonal skills and to understand that the individuals he had sought to transform also had something powerful to bring to the table.

G-d decreed for Elijah an eternity of encounters – a chair to be left for him at every circumcision, a door to be opened for him at every Seder and his name to be invoked at the end of every Sabbath. As Elijah wandered through the centuries, meeting the people he had sought to change, he began to learn their strength. Whether in Marrakesh or Sanaa, in Vilna or in Jerusalem, he observed that they were a people who clung stubbornly to the truth he had once tried to teach them. Despite the vicissitudes of time, they continued to seek him. He came to understand that the challenges of each era were the growing pains of our history.

Elijah changed. Through personal encounter by personal encounter in generation after generation, he became the bridge not only between G-d and his Nation but between the Nation and its people.

Through personal encounter by personal encounter in generation after generation, he transformed in the eyes of the people as well. He was no longer perceived as a man fueled by zealotry and passion but as a man who was the harbinger of hope, of good tidings and of the possibility of change.

Elijah where are you today? We need you so desperately to turn our hearts back to each other.

In the crevices of G-d’s mountain centuries ago, Elijah was taught by G-d that change does not come from great noise. It comes from understanding what is meant by the silence between the words. It took Elijah centuries to learn that lesson. We don’t have that time.

Let us go find Elijah.

If you are not hearing the fears being felt by the pro-reformers, then you are not helping us find Elijah.

If you are not hearing the fears felt by the anti-reformers, then you are not helping us find Elijah.

If you are not remembering that we live in this country because each of our ancestors held on to the same dream, then you are not helping us find Elijah.

In biblical times, disunity was dominant. There were only 73 years that we were able to stand united as a nation. We are now in year 75. Let us continue to surpass the biblical odds by pulling out a chair, opening the door, and inviting the other in. Then let us listen for all that is revealed in the quiet spaces between the words of our conversations.

I hope we will find that Elijah is here.

About the Author
Ariella Nadel has been a TaNakh teacher and community educator for the past twenty-five years. Until making Aliya this past summer to Modi’in, she was a TaNakh teacher at Yeshivat Akiva/Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield, Michigan. She currently teaches at several Midrashot in Israel and is an adult educator for JLearn of Metropolitan Detroit. Ariella Nadel has a pedagogue degree from Michlala College for Women and holds degrees in Judaic Studies and Political Science from Yeshiva University and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
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