Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
This week’s Haftarah contains two stories about the prophet Elisha, a protégé of Elijah. In the first story an unnamed woman, traditionally identified as the wife of Obadiah, one of the minor prophets, comes to Elisha with a complaint. Her husband has died, and she is so destitute without him that her children are about to be taken away from her to be sold as slaves.
Elisha asks her if she has anything of value in her house, and she replies that all she has is a single jug of oil. Elisha then instructs her to borrow as many vessels as she can from her neighbors. Then, he tells her to pour the oil from her vessel into the other ones. Miraculously, the oil does not run out, ultimately lasting long enough to fill all the borrowed jugs. She returns to Elisha, who tells her, “Go sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your children can live on the rest.”
The Shunamite Woman
Elisha frequently visited Shunem, a city in the tribal territory of Issachar. Whenever Elisha was there, he and his servant Gehazi were hosted by a married Shunamite woman, who fed them and gave them a special room in which to sleep. One day Elisha asks how he can reward the woman.
She responds by saying that she does not want any kind of public recognition. But because she was childless, Elisha says, “At this season next year, you will be embracing a son.” The woman responds with doubt, telling Elisha not to delude or disappoint her. However, his prophecy comes true in the very next sentence, when she is blessed with a son.
Years later, while out in the fields with his father, the boy cries out, “My head! My head!” He is taken back to his mother who holds him on her lap as he dies. She lays him on a bed and immediately goes out to bring Elisha to her child. When she reaches the prophet she falls at his feet.
The woman does not tell Elisha what happened to her son. Instead, she asks, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Didn’t I say, ‘Don’t mislead me?'” Elisha understands what has occurred and sends Gehazi ahead with his walking stick and instructions to lay the staff on top of the boy’s face. The effort to save the boy is unsuccessful.
The Second Miracle
When Elisha and the boy’s mother arrive at the house, the boy is still dead, his body lying on a couch. Elisha closes himself in a room with the boy and prays to God. Then he lies on top of the boy, putting “his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands, as he bent over him.”
The boy’s body begins to warm. Elisha gets up, walks around and lies on top of the boy again. The boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes, revived. Elisha summons the boy’s mother who falls at Elisha’s feet again and then leaves with her son.
Connection to Vayera
Many of the themes in Parashat Vayera also appear in the Haftarah. Hakhnasat orhim, welcoming guests, is a prominent feature in both Vayera and in the stories of Elisha’s miracles. In both stories, a messenger of God comes to a childless woman (Sarah and the Shunamite woman) and tells her that she will soon give birth. Both messages are skeptically received, but both women ultimately have sons.
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, both the Torah portion and the haftarah close with stories of sons who miraculously survive what would otherwise be a deadly experience. Isaac is almost sacrificed by his father on top of Mount Moriah, but is saved at the last minute by an angel and a strategically-placed ram. The Shunamite boy dies but is revived by a prophet and his prayer.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.