In The Cave of Elijah (July 2007)

Was Elijah’s cave on Mount Horeb a place of spiritual advancement and service or was it just a place of escape from his active mission? It was at the mouth of this cave, on its "doorstep" as it were,that he heard the "Elijah Question"......
"What are you doing here?"

This week’s parshah PINCHAS focuses on the subject of zealotry and though most years it is not read in synagogues for liturgical reasons, the parshah’s official accompanying HAFTARAH is part of the story of Eliyahu (Elijah).

In a nutshell this haftarah outlines the following tale:

Elijah, on the Israelite team, had challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. Each had to prepare an altar and an offering to their deity and the team whose offering burst into flames would be declared the winner. At Mount Carmel, Elijah’s prayer was dramatically answered by fire and he concluded his rather over the top demo by slaughtering everyone of the false prophets. Zealotry certainly.

The Haftarah opens with Elijah fleeing for his life from Jezebel who was far from impressed with this outcome and within moments of his triumph Elijah slumps into suicidal depression.(1Kings.19:4) Fortunately he was refreshed by the shade of a tree, water and freshly baked angel’s cake. (I have a friend whose bingenkuchen save lives which proves that this angelic “yiddishe mamma” approach still works.)

Thus rested and fortified Elijah went on to Mount Horeb (Sinai). There Elijah enters a Cave. Some say it was the very same “Cleft in the Rock” in which Moses hid.

Both caves are presented as the “Place” of a Theophany and not simply personal spiritual experiences.

Elijah hears God’s Voice asking a question:

(1 Kings. 19:9)
What are you doing here, Eliyahu?

Most Jewish (and many Christian) commentators on the place of this question in the Elijah story seem to read it with the inflection: “What on earth are you doing hiding away in here, wasting your time when you should be up and doing stuff!?” As a self appointed spokesman for the Jewish eremitical minority, I would like to suggest that it might actually be read as: “What on earth are you DOING here, fretting and dwelling on the past, resting on your laurels one minute then focusing on your failings and anxieties the next. You are spending your time here in self observation when what you SHOULD be doing is listening to my voice. This Cave is a place of meeting . A place of mission not escape.”

Let me explain where I get that from a little.

I would suggest that Elijah’s answer is both apologetic and panicky. To paraphrase his tripartite reply in 1Kings 19 v10:

A: I have been very zealous for You…
B: I am the only loyal Israelite left, the others are unfaithful
C: I came here because they were trying to kill me for what I did.

Which I read as:

A: Over compensating for insecurity in melodramatic action;
B: delusions of grandeur;
C: paranoia.

The reply to this is given in three corresponding parts:

A: Wind
B: Earthquake
C: Fire

In each case the author pointedly tells us that “God was not in” either of these.

But then the famous fourth answer comes:

(1 Kings. 19:20 )

"and after the fire
there came a still small voice."

It seems to me that “Elijah’s voice” is telling him that a change of approach is called for. That his earthquake, wind, and fire approach is not necessarily the most effective one. Maybe he was asking himself this question. (prayer as hitpalel) Maybe it was God. Whichever….. he was thrown into a deeper level of awareness by this fourth answer.

What was his reaction?

A: He wrapped his face in his mantle
(reminiscent of the prayer shawl ritual at the start of prayer)

Perhaps this was a gesture of respect or awe.
Perhaps one of shame and his wanting to hide in embarrassment.
Perhaps it represented a need to feel comforted.

B: He went out
(reminiscent of the steps ritual in the Amidah)

Perhaps this was a gesture of impatience and restlessness in the midst of the pressure caused by his Divine/self interrogation... an “I’ve got to get out of here fast” type of “he went out”.

Perhaps it represents a stepping out-side of himself.

Moving from self-centredness to attention on the Divine or Israel/the world/the worlds.

C: He stood at the mouth of the Cave.
(reminiscent of the Standing posture of the Amidah)

In the “Place” of encounter and mission,
where inwardness and outward looking prayer coexist:
The threshold of The Cave of the Heart (M’arat Ha-Lev).


What then follows deepens the mystery around the meaning of the “Elijah question” still further.

There at the mouth of the cave……… if it was not just a scribal “typo” as some suggest……… he heard exactly the same question again.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(1Kings. 19:13)

But then what happened?
He gave exactly the same answer!

A: I have been very zealous... blah.....
B: I am the only loyal Israelite left, the others ...blah, blah....
C: I came here because they were trying to kill me... blah, blah,blah......

When I read this I can almost hear “God in the story” gasp in exasperation. Elijah has not been listening. The coded message of the “four answers” has not been understood.

The Voice then instructs him to leave the Cave and return to the field of action with the command:

( 1 Kings.19:14)

To me it is as though Elijah was being told:

“Oh dear….maybe next time you’ll get the point. For now, here are some jobs that need doing.” because:-

A: “Your special way to me, though you have simply not realised it,
is not through the earthquake, wind and fire of busy activity.
It is through the voice of silence.

You were called here to listen.”

or perhaps

B: “The mission I have for you is more effectively practiced when accompanied by periods of solitary reflection and retreat. You just don’t seem ready for that so here’s something to keep you busy.”

or perhaps

C: “Your zealotry, meticulousness and introspection mean little to me unless they are performed with a real sense of connectedness with me. You can only gain that through contemplative prayer.”

I was once a Carmelite monk (before conversion to Judaism) and though I have a feeling that the Carmelite founders, Teresa of Avila and Juan de la Cruz, might agree with my rather far fetched analysis of this passage, the weight of mainstream Jewish tradition is certainly pulling in an opposite direction. In that tradition it is simple: Elijah has been running away from responsibility and has been called out of his selfish reflection in the cave to go and do some practical anointing in the valley. The mainstream Jewish attitude.

But you tell me....

A: Why then does that “still small voice” come at all if that is the case?

B: The last time we saw such a set-up was at the Theophany witnessed by Moses. (
Ki Tisa Exodus 33:13to23).
Is this a gentle chiding for the sole benefit of Elijah or are we witnessing another major revelation about God?

C: Why are the first three manifestations (Earthquake, Wind, and Fire) described as inferior to the “subtle whispering voice” ?

It’s Shimon Bar Yohai all over again.

The “Elijah Question”, Mah l’cha po?, What are you doing here? is one which plagues the life of many a contemplative.

I think that it is easier for those with a busy practical religious life to feel fulfilled and confident that they are “doing their best” or “doing something useful”. It is far harder for someone attempting a spiritual “ministry” or hidden contemplative life to get the same direct satisfaction. Doubts are of course common to all. But, having tried both approaches to “Divine service” I think it is harder for vocational contemplatives.  I think this applies to contemplatives of all religions.  With regard to the Christian monastic tradition (for example)... take a look at An Infinity of Little Hours if you want to read a brilliant account of five Carthusians who tried to answer the “Elijah Question” in a wholly contemplative environment and see if you then agree with me on this.

I remember someone telling me that the Baal Shem Tov had said that “ where you find yourself is probably where you are meant to be”. This is good advice but often hard to take. Anyone with a spiritual life of any dynamism is going to be questioning themselves and examining their place in life. Asking themselves if they are doing the right things in the right way to bring about a “better world”. I’m still doing it anyway…but then perhaps I never grew up!

I tried to preach the same advice to myself once.
It’s the only time I have ever been published in print in a “real” book.
My little paragraph was on page 124 of “Kindred Spirits” (Harper Collins 1995). It is now out of print, so quoting it here makes me feel like I am rescuing it from oblivion:

" Knowing our Place

God is called the place of the world, but the world is not called His place

Much of our time is spent trying to make career decisions.
Many of us are subject to perennial doubts about our role, our “place” in the world. Some of us spend hours imagining that the grass would be greener in some other job, some other community, some other relationship.
If God is the only “real” place does it actually matter where we are or what we do so long as we know how to stand still and consider what it is He might be showing us on our own doorstep in the here and now? ... "

As I wrote in “The Cave”:

“ We are made in the image of God.
There are so many interpretations of the implications of that short but profound statement.

Might one of them be that we are more capable than is often thought of entering into or somehow manifesting His timelessness to make it more present in the world?
The “still, small voice” which Elijah heard makes an invitation calling us to do just that.”

Hic et Nunc...... as the Carthusians say.
There really is nothing else. 


There is a further discussion of the Cave of Elijah question on this website to be found HERE.