Why did Elisha perform the miracles described in this week’s Haftarah – the continuous production of new oil and reviving the son of the Shunamite woman? Even though righteous people and prophets can indeed cause wonders to take place both by praying and by the force of their holiness, it is not appropriate to change the ways of nature for personal reasons, such as the economic or medical needs of an individual. The Talmud discusses a similar case: “Rav Yosef says, Just see how great a man this was, to have a miracle occur for him! Abayei replied, Just the opposite! How terrible this man must be that it was necessary to modify the laws of nature for him!” [Shabbat 53b].
Evidently, the purpose of the miracle of the oil as performed by Elisha was to serve as a protest against the corrupt social behavior, which allowed debt-collectors to threaten to take the sons of the needy widow as slaves, without anybody trying to stop this from happening. Neighbors are willing to lend the woman their empty vessels, but none of them think to fill the vessels with food or money. If the social surroundings are so rotten, in a way that can lead the entire kingdom to crumble, Elisha makes a profound statement: G-d wants support for the needy people, and He is even willing to modify the laws of nature if the surrounding culture will not take care of them.
In connection with this, it is relevant to note another passage from the Talmud. “The evil Turnusrufus asked Rabbi Akiva: If your G-d loves poor people so much, why doesn’t He give them what they need? Rabbi Akiva replied: It is so that through them we will be saved from Gehenom (hell).” [Bava Batra 10a]. This does not mean to imply that a poor person is a tool that a wealthy one uses in order to be worthy of a good life in the world to come, since that would mean an instance of great cruelty for the poor people. Rather, as Emanuel Levinas explained, a world without giving and receiving is hell. Thus, the term “through them we will be saved” refers to both the rich and the poor.
Elisha does not act as a private individual within the framework of his own small village. His actions are always aimed at the system of the government. He asks the Shunamite woman, “Can I speak for you to the King or the Head of the Army?” [Kings II 4:13]. When he tells her that she will no longer be barren, the objective is to bring the prophet of the next generation into the world – according to the sages this was the Prophet Habakkuk.
And this explains the proximity between the two stories, the oil and the Shunamite woman. In a world that has become hell, a deep despair might have welled up in the hearts of men. Perhaps they would feel that there is no hope for improvement. When such a situation is reached, we must always remember that in the end good will prevail in the world, even though this may take a long time. And that is why Elisha revived the boy, to show that there is indeed hope. Even death, which for now is the greatest enemy of perfection in the world, will eventually be conquered, at the time of the resurrection.
Source: “NOTES FROM THE HAFTARAH” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute) See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Vayeira 5776, issue 1596.