He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” — 1 Kings 19:10
The Torah portion for this week is Pinchas, which means “Phinehas,” from Numbers 25:10–30:1, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:46–19:21.
Tradition teaches that the soul of Elijah the prophet attends the circumcision ceremony of every Jewish baby boy. There is a chair at every circumcision called “the chair of Elijah” on which the baby is circumcised, as though Elijah himself is holding the little one.
The Jewish sages teach that Elijah once complained to God about the shortcomings of the children of Israel. In this week’s Haftorah, he said, “The Israelites have rejected your covenant,” alluding to the law of circumcision. But God wanted to teach Elijah to look for the good in people, and so it was declared that Elijah would bear witness to every circumcision since then.
Another tradition teaches that Elijah and Phinehas from this week’s Torah reading share the same soul. Both men were considered zealots — Phinehas killed for the sake of God, and here in the Haftorah, so did Elijah. The Haftorah begins just after the showdown at Mount Carmel when Elijah’s sacrifice was accepted by God, but the sacrifices of the false prophets who led the people astray were rejected. After the nation realized that Elijah was God’s true prophet, Elijah commanded them to kill the false prophets, which they did.
However, that was not the end of the story. The wicked Queen Jezebel ordered Elijah killed, and the Israelites immediately went back to their old ways. Elijah, fearing for his life, ran to Mount Horeb, where he had an amazing encounter with God. When God asked him why he was there, Elijah told his sad story — after he had been so zealous for God, the people had returned to their sinful ways and now wanted to kill him, too.
Then God responded.
First, there was a great and powerful wind, but God was not in the wind. Then came a powerful earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Next was a great fire, but God was not there either. Finally came a gentle whisper, and in that whisper, Elijah found God.
Here is what God was telling Elijah — and us: Fire and brimstone, zealotry and passion, all have their time and place. Sometimes there is a need to take drastic measures to get others’ attention or to punish for the sake of God. But ultimately, that’s not what will bring people closer to Him. People find God in the “gentle whisper,” not the great fire.
God wanted Elijah – and He wants us all – to look for the good in people and gently bring them closer to Him. While zealotry is sometimes necessary, it is not the ideal. Ultimately, God is found in a soft voice and a gentle touch.
Honor Rabbi Eckstein