Elijah and the Peace of Jerusalem (May 2010)

Elijah the fiery prophet of Carmel was without doubt a model fundamentalist zealot. Like many other prophets he was an aggressive defendant of his own God and his massacre of the prophets of Baal on Carmel stands as one of the most brutal incidents of slaughter in the Bible.

Yet in post-biblical tradition he is known as “The Comforter” and as a “Peacemaker”.

So what happened?

Those who are familiar with my thoughts on Elijah will remember an article I wrote in 2007 called “In the Cave of Elijah”. I keep returning to its thesis that the bat kol of Horeb was a reprimand to an Elijah who was avoiding a call to a more contemplative lifestyle. Today I am returning to that Cave again to listen to a word about its political relevance...specifically in relation to the Palestine-Israel peace process.

To begin I’ll restate the original 2007 article’s main points here to save you having to open other pages from the website:

From article “In the Cave of Elijah”

In Haftarah Pinchas we read how Elijah 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.

Elijah flees 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.
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. (Exodus 33:13)

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

Elijah hears God’s Voice asking a question: Mah l’cha Po? (what are you doing here?).

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 meditating when you should be up and doing stuff!?”

I read it 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 my perspective comes from.....I would suggest that Elijah’s answer is both apologetic and panicky and that it reflects the evasion of a truth he wishes to avoid.

Paraphrasing his tripartite reply in 1Kings 19:10, here is Elijah’s evasive response:

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

which I read as:

1: over compensating for insecurity in melodramatic action 
2:delusions of self-importance masking those insecurities 

The reply is given through three “events” or “experiences”.
A: Wind
B: Earthquake 
C: Fire

Which (this time round) I might read as representing:

A: Futile activity to mask a lack of understanding or facing up to facts
B: Destructive or negative speech and actions which do not create anything 
C: Violent extremism

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

It is then that Elijah hears the “still small voice”...and this he recognises as the “Voice of God”.

Elijah is asked the question again....What are you doing here?
Again he gives his flustered three part answer and (in my reading) fails the test.

The conclusion of the story is that he is told to leave the cave....shortly after which he passes on his prophetic mantle to Elisha.

New Commentary for Lag B'Omer 2010

I believe the voice of his conscience was telling him that the way of peace and a life of contemplation were superior to the bustling activism of his political career. (I am not saying here that “contemplative lives” are superior per se...only that Elijah was, I believe, called to a more contemplative and peaceable lifestyle than the one he had followed.) His call to be a “Jewish Contemplative” was not heard....that is something which all those who seek to live and promote intentionally dedicated contemplative lifestyles in Judaism attempt to continue “in his name”. Such people are  the sons and daughters of Elijah the childless--Though not prophets they aim to be “Descendants of the Prophets” if only in some small way.

Though it may seem strangely quietist from the outside, the life of a dedicated or consecrated “Contemplative” is nothing less than a profound form of political/religious activism.

The “correct” response to the question “Mah L’cha Po?”...the question asked of all contemplatives... is perhaps the one which heads this article (from Psalm 73):

“Whom do I have in heaven but You?
And besides You I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart yearn for You,
The Rock of my Heart and my inheritance
Is God eternally.
My purpose in life is to be “one who is intimate” with God.”

This response indicates the "true zeal” of an Elijan and is spoken with "mystical fire”. A fire which envelops, inspires, and creates. It is a response which also reminds the contemplative that “Levites” (the ones specifically dedicated to the Sanctuary’s service) have no inheritance in the land of Israel...for God Himself is to be their inheritance. (Ezekiel 44:28).

According to the Biblical legend, Elijah did not “die” but was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Eliyahu the warrior prophet
The zealot fundamentalist
Hears a voice
Not in earthquake, wind, or fire,
Not in prejudice and hate,
Not in revenge or name calling.

The legend is that he ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The violence of his “first” life is burnt out--
He becomes an archetype.

In the biblical tradition, long after his “death” he is described as being the herald of the messiah (Malachi 3:23) and is described, somewhat mysteriously, as being the one who will “turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers” (Malachi 3:24)

According to traditional legend in that “second” archetypal life he has become “Elijah the Comforter”, “Elijah the Peacemaker”. In that post biblical legendary tradition he appears as the one who rescues the Jewish community, as one who tests the charity and forbearance of Jews by appearing as a needy beggar or an often tiresome and puzzling old man; and he attends every circumcision to comfort and effect healing (!) as well, it is sometimes added, to assess whether or not the newborn might be the messiah.

In the Rabbinic tradition he also became “the one who will provide all the answers to those problems which seem to have no solution” (those declared tayku). The problems of the “Holy” Land come pretty high in my list of “problems which seem to have no solution” and so I am keen to have recourse to Elijah’s advice. In this I approach not Elijah the biblical Zealot, but Elijah the archetypal Comforter... 

How can Jewish Contemplatives (or contemplatives in any religious tradition) hope to bring about the peace of Jerusalem?   I am not sure that I am going to be able to answer that question, but I can tell you that I spend a great deal of time and effort praying about it.  This article is a little "bursting through to the surface" of what has been going on those prayers.

The Peace of Palestine, Israel, Jerusalem, cannot be achieved by earthquake wind or fire.

Focusing on the injustices of Israel will not bring peace--only hatred from those whose hearts are already anti-Jewish.

Focusing on the bitter hatred much of the Arab world feels for Jews does not bring peace- - it only encourages fear in the minds of the paranoid or xenophobic.

If we are to focus on anything, should it not be the evidence of any personal, organisational, denominational, religious, or political attempts on all “sides” to work for Peace. By focusing on them rather than on the sensational or  the negative we encourage the growth of those channels of Peace. By supporting them we become creators of peace ourselves.

The way of Elijah the zealot is no longer appropriate...

Religious and political zealotry emphasises differences, settling scores, seeking revenge, declaring possession, asserting an often non-inclusive moral standpoint. There are moral injustices in Israel’s past and present...some acknowledged, many denied or shamefully hidden away.....they should be known and rectified..... but making them the central or focal issue can add demolition to earthquake, anarchic chaos to an already windswept landscape, and can fan the fire of human hatred into an uncontrollable furnace.

Animosity between Palestinian and Israeli (or perhaps I should say Arab and Jew) are the cause and/or product of a deep-seated disagreement which needs the balm of compassionate co-existence and not the sharpened sword of further prolonged conflict. There is a place for argument and criticism but that place is within a respectful dialogue not on a verbal or physical battle-field.

In the Torah (Deuteronomy3:24 and 34:4) Moses is denied entry into the “Promised Land”. As Elijah passed on his mantle to Elisha immediately after the test of the Cave of Horeb, so Moses, on Nebo, deferred to Joshua. The traditional midrash explaining why Moses was denied entry into “the Land” refers back to an incident many years earlier: In Numbers 20:7 Moses had displayed what might be termed “undue force” coupled with a little self-promotion: The rabbis noted that, in the desert, he had been asked to “speak to” the rock in order for the miracle of flowing water to occur, but that he had chosen to “command it” (emphasing his own role in the process) and “struck the rock” instead. “Force and chutzpah” over “humility and dialogue”. Very “Elijah the zealot”.

During his encounter in the cave on Horeb, it seems that Elijah was given two chances to examine his personality and methods. The same seems to have been the case in the story of Shimon Bar Yohai (whose memory we celebrate on Lag B’Omer) who spent two separate periods of retreat in his cave in Meron. Shimon Bar Yohai and Eliyahu Ha Navi both shared the fire of zeal which can so easily become the fire of violent anger. Both were given opportunities to reconsider and reform, to allow the gentler power of Mercy and Compassion to temper that of Force and Might. It is an opportunity which is presented to all mystics, and to all contemplatives who follow in their footsteps. We are all invited to see that our interior world is both the seedbed and the sower of world peace.

I have a small piece of rock. Part of Eretz Israel. A stone from the spring of Elijah on Mount Carmel. Two very kind (Catholic) adolescent friends of mine brought it back for me during a summer spent on a kibbutz. I have treasured it for over thirty years. It speaks to me today:

If Jew or Arab should strike the rock with undue force they run the risk of destroying something beautiful in a desire to “possess the Land”.

To quote a famous zionist, Martin Buber:

“It seems to me that God does not give any one portion of the earth away....a conquered land is, in my opinion only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it- and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

I am Jew who hopes against hope that the State of Israel will not only be proud of its achievements but that it will also clearly admit to its mistakes and ask forgiveness for its abuses. I am a Jew who waits and prays for it to fulfill the words of Ben Gurion positively when he said:

“The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, nor by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values.”

And I am a Jew that hopes against hope that a compassionate and tolerant Palestine may soon emerge as a nation which confronts its own prejudices and can begin to forgive.

Peace is not something we might create....it is the tool with which we create.

That, perhaps, is part of what the little voice in the cave of Elijah’s mind said.

But it is a quiet and indistinct voice- Kol d’mamah d’kah ....a voice which many believe to be nothing more than a puff of inconsequential religious wind...

It is voice which is often irksome, and in this case, profoundly challenging for any political or religious zealot to hear..... Many are afraid of its simple power:-

It says “Peace Now”..... that means put the negative aside... Find the positive NOW and build on it.

As we pray every week at the close of Shabbos: “May Elijah come soon in our day”

May the voice of Peace be heard over the din of Hate.

May those who "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" help to create that peace by their lives of contemplative zeal.  May the fire of their love scatter the gloom.

Norman R Davies
April 20 2010
(for Magnus)