Translated by Michael Hattin
The image of Eliyahu the Prophet breaks down one of the fundamental assumptions of our existence, namely, that a great divide separates our material world from the upper spiritual realms. Eliyahu frequently appears before the Sages of the Midrash and the Talmud, always in the guise of a comfortable inhabitant of both worlds and as a link between them.
Abravanel (Melakhim 2:2) attributes this to Elisha’s request of Eliyahu to place upon him “a double amount of his spirit.” Elisha expressed the desire that Eliyahu would continue to cause his spirit to rest upon him even after Eliyahu’s ascent to heaven. Eliyahu responded by saying: “If you see me taken from you, then your request will be fulfilled.” Elisha’s stance on the separating line between the two worlds was the bridgehead that allowed Eliyahu’s personality to continue to have an impact. There is no doubt, Abravanel concludes, that Eliyahu’s appearances in the study halls of the sages “was the consequence of Elisha’s request that Eliyahu should continue to communicate with him all of his life; this possibility remained operative for the sages.”
Eliyahu appears to be a phenomenon sui generis, but it seems that in fact a general truth is reflected through him. The Or Ha-chaim (Bemidbar 21:17) writes:
The main part of a person’s reward for the performance of the mitzvot only occurs in the spiritual world … and this makes it necessary for a person to leave this material world in order to receive his just reward from God’s gracious hands. We see that death is the result of human sin, which implies that in the absence of sin, human beings would be immortal and therefore lacking their eternal reward! The mystics explain, however, that in the absence of sin a person would ascend heavenward while alive and inhabit the upper chambers. An example of this is the fate of Eliyahu the prophet who ascended heavenward to receive his reward and escaped the taste of death.
A delineation between the worlds is neither necessary nor intrinsic. If we would merit it, all of us – and not only Eliyahu – would be able to freely experience passage between them. R. Zadok Ha-kohen of Lublin expressed the idea contained here (Resisai Layla 11):
In truth, all the matters of this world are also by the hand of God, and this world and the next are not at all different realities. Both of them are called “Olam,” a term which is all-encompassing. The sole difference between the two is that one of them is called “Ha-zeh” or “this world” because it is apparent to the eye; the other is called “Ha-ba” or “the next world,” because it is hidden (ne’elam).
The link between these worlds is the source of all unification. It should therefore not surprise us that Eliyahu appears as the one who effects unity in various spheres of human life, as the verse states (Malakhi 3:24): “He will return the heart of parents to children, and the heart of children to their parents.” The Mishna at the end of Eduyot ascribes to Eliyahu the role of reconciling disagreements and forging peace. Our Sages further state (Kiddushin 70a): “Whoever marries a woman who is improper for him – Eliyahu binds him and God lashes him,” because such a person has transgressed by desiring an inappropriate unification.
The Question: The Key to Unification
Occasionally, a person merits discovering a spiritual deficiency within himself, but does not know how to fill it. He is asphyxiated by the boundaries of the concrete, trapped by the conceptual limits of the material world, and sanctity lies beyond his purview. He requires a key, a guide to show him the way to unify the spiritual realm and the material one. Here, too, we can derive lessons from Eliyahu.
Eliyahu is charged with another task – “Let it remain in abeyance until Eliyahu comes,” “The Tishbi will resolve difficulties and questions.” Here, Eliyahu is responsible for resolving doubts and answering difficulties. Eliyahu’s revelations are tied to a question. Any other appearance of his is without meaning. “Should Eliyahu appear to inform us that we may not conduct the chalitza ceremony with a sandal, we would not listen to him” (Yevamot 102a). We know that it is in fact permissible, and whatever Eliyahu reveals to us without being asked, will not change our minds. The key to Eliyahu’s revelations, to the unification of the worlds, is the question. A halakhic query leads to a halakhic resolution. If we are searching for an existential revelation, then we are required to ask an existential question.
The questions which are in the realm of “teiku” or “let it remain in abeyance” are those which human reason cannot resolve. These constitute the link between this world and the next, because they bring us close to the limits of our insight. A man lives his everyday life according to his reason, but as soon as he realizes that his intellect cannot solve his true problems – to understand his life and his world – he stands at the threshold of the next world. One of this century’s philosophers declares in the introduction to his book that he has set for himself a double goal: firstly, he intends to resolve all of the problems that have confronted philosophers from time immemorial. Next, he will also demonstrate how the resolution of these questions lacks meaning. The true questions will continue to gnaw away at us, and there is no answer to them. These questions are not of a relaxed nature, to be politely discussed around the coffee table, but in fact arise as cries of anguished despair. These questions arise out of the realization that the human intellect, with all of its glory, is powerless to answer them. The solution to these problems exists, but it is beyond our grasp.
Elisha expressed just such a question as his mentor was about to leave him: “Where is Hashem, the God of Eliyahu?” According to the text, this cry brought about the resting of Eliyahu’s spirit upon him. While Eliyahu was alive, Elisha could learn Torah from him and could benefit from his guidance. Now, however, Eliyahu had vanished, and although Elisha did his best to stem the waters of the Jordan River as he had been taught, it was to no avail. The answer was to be found with his mentor, beyond the divide between the worlds. At that moment, Elisha realized in the depths of his heart that this world without the next is an impossible goal, a riddle that cannot be solved; it is like the waters of the Jordan that slip away from his attempts to stem them and mock his efforts. Elisha reaches the moment of crisis, and at that moment the question bursts forth from the depths of his being. Only then does Eliyahu descend in the whirlwind to unify this world with the next, as the response that unites with the question.
This notion constituted an integral part of Eliyahu’s training while he was yet alive. At Mount Carmel Eliyahu asks the people (I Melakhim 18:21): “For how long will you hesitate between the choices?” In the absence of this question, Eliyahu knows that even the descent of a heavenly fire will not change the situation. First it is essential to raise one’s consciousness to realize the deficiency of not having posed the question. The people did not respond to his query; was their silence an indicator that the question had in fact pierced their callous hearts? In the depths of their souls did they come to the realization that lives of hypocrisy are without any meaning and that there is no reason to go on without a revelation from above? The results seem to indicate that Eliyahu’s attempt failed. The people did not rise up as single entity to cast off the yoke of Ba’al worship, and Izevel the foreign queen of the Kingdom of Israel continued with her evil machinations. Although with their mouths they cried out, “Hashem is God!” they were perfectly content to continue leading their lives in a world understood as aself-contained unit, which did not need any sort of meaning from higher realms. It is even possible to bring down fire from heaven, but if that fire does not come to answer a soul-wrenching question, it will return to its heavenly source and life will continue unchanged. The chasm between the worlds will continue to exist.
The Cry of Yirmiyahu
Yirmiyahu, like Elisha before him, knew the secret of the crisis point that could unify the worlds. His outcry occurred when God commanded him to purchase and redeem the field of Chanamel his cousin, as the Babylonian siege around Jerusalem began to tighten (32:16): “Surely, you are God!” Certainly, human intellect realizes that God has allowed for the possibility of destruction and re-establishment, surrender and hope. But an intellectual realization of this fact is insufficient to deal with existential issues that go beyond conceptual problems. This prophecy was communicated to human beings of flesh and blood who were asked to live two polar extremes simultaneously. On the one hand, they see imminent destruction before their eyes as the enemy ramparts rise against the city walls, and on the other hand, they hear with their ears the prophecy of consolation: “Fields will yet be bought in this land.” For Yirmiyahu this was too much. How can a tortured soul, confronted by the horrors of the present, store up such hope for the future? Why need such a prophecy be communicated to a broken people?
It was precisely this crisis which precipitated the prophetic response. Alone, isolated and trapped by our material limitations, the human soul is not capable of containing tragedy and hope as one. But “I am Hashem the God of all flesh, is anything too wondrous for Me?” From My perspective, in the world of absolute truth, everything is alive and eternal, and there are no contradictions. The promise of redemption is not any less concrete than the certainty of destruction. Yirmiyahu’s crisis prepared his heart for the second prophecy. This second communication added nothing in terms of factual content, but did contribute immeasurably in terms of spirit. Yirmiyahu discovers a powerful trust and faith, which are able to transcend the black and hopeless reality surrounding him. But this discovery required an internal about-face – the realization that such strength is not to be found in natural reason but derives from a higher reality.
In the context of our discussion, mention must also be made of the Book of Iyov, which in sum total poses a single existential question, a hopeless attempt to grasp through the intellect the meaning of suffering. It is this inability of reason to solve the problem that brings about God’s revelation out of the whirlwind.
A Person Knows Everything – Except to Ask
Yirmiyahu inveighs against those who fail to ask, “Where is God?” (2:6,8), against the Kohanim and teachers of the Torah who prefer to pretend that they have all of the answers. “I made myself available to those who did not inquire; I said, ‘Here I am,’ to a nation that did not call My name” (Yishayahu 65:1). Prophecy was within the reach of the people, but they exhibited no interest, because they lacked the insight to realize that did not understand!
For the modern man, this world is enough. The scientific explanation of life and the world describes, in a numerical and quantitative fashion, the inter-relationship of the components of existence. We fool ourselves into believing that science addresses the spiritual content of the world and presents us with an adequate explanation. Modern man therefore has no chance of discovering Eliyahu, who unifies the worlds. Modern man comes to the next world only through death, which is the absolute negation of his life in this world.
This, however, is not a new phenomenon. According to our sages, Achav claimed that he had erected an idolatrous image on every furrow, and that it was impossible to traverse the fields because of the all of the rain that fell as a result (Sanhedrin 113a). This represents the construction of an illusory mechanistic model of existence, which is self-sufficient and has no room for a spiritual dimension. The pressing of a button, the entering of a number into an ATM brings a person complete satisfaction. The behavior of the gods is completely predictable – one need only supply their needs and the rains will surely come. Eliyahu realized that it is impossible to bring a people with such an attitude to the next world except through the vehicle of “death,” which is the complete abnegation of this world. And so the rains were halted, until the right hour would come for the event at Mount Carmel when the people’s eyes might be opened. They might then realize that the world is an unfathomable mystery, and all of the mechanistic explanations are nothing more than diversions and superficial illusions.
Eliyahu on Seder Eve
Questions stand at the center of the Seder experience. With great insight, the Haggadah distinguishes between different types of questioners. The wise son realizes that notwithstanding all of his wisdom, he still does not understand. He understands the statutes and laws intellectually but is still searching for their deeper meaning. The wicked son shows no interest in answers, and poses theoretical questions to demonstrate his perspicacity. The simple son has not studied; his spiritual needs consist in acquiring the basic knowledge that he lacks.
It appears that the greatest educational effort of the Haggadah is directed towards the child who does not know how to ask. Great thought was expended by the Sages and by those who came after them to properly fulfill the mitzva of “You initiate him.” There is no indication whatsoever that this child is mentally deficient or intellectually lacking. His only limitation is that he does not know how to ask, he is afraid of admitting that everything is so incomprehensible. On the contrary, it is precisely the intellectually gifted who are likely to suffer from this deficiency. Those Seder rituals that are uncommon and even seem strange provide a significant allusion to our existential state in this world. Their goal is to bring each one of us to recognize the boundaries of our understanding, and to deeply desire to transcend those limitations by posing the QUESTION. The hope is that then “God will fulfill all of our requests” and the door will be opened for the entrance of Eliyahu the Prophet.
(See also R. Zadok Ha-kohen, Resisei Layla, 11, and R. Elimelekh Bar-Shaul, Ma’arkhei Lev, p.14ff.)
This article is reposted with permission from the
VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion