Prophecy may have ended with the Biblical era, but contemplatives are people who still seek inspiration and who may at least aspire to be worthy vehicles for ruach ha-kodesh. The prophets are encouraging models for social activists and religious leaders, but they are also great models for those attempting to live dedicated lives of contemplation. Many of the biblical prophets spent time in solitary retreat and many of them were accompanied by “schools” of dedicated trainee followers. (see II Kings 4 and 6 as well as I Samuel 10 and19). Included among these were those who followed the prophet Elisha in the tradition of Elijah. They were known as “B’nei Nevi’im”- the People of the Prophets. The word “b’nei” is a word which also means sons or children. They were not just the “people” of the prophets, they were their spiritual descendants according to a certain tradition.
Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives are in some sense aspiring to be the “People of the Prophets” in the twenty-first century: a group of “living B’nei nevi’im”. That is not to say we aspire to being the mouthpieces of our God; nor that we can see the future; nor that we would consider ourselves to be leaders or models for a less chosen or blessed hoi polloi. But it does mean that we aim to follow the spiritual example of the prophetic tradition. We do that: by being specifically attentive to the Voice of God in silent prayer; by praying for inspiration to understand the Torah written on our hearts; and by attempting to lead lives of contemplation that are focussed not on ourselves, but on our God and His Word.
Such a lifestyle is prophetic in so far as it is one of intense dedication to that process and to the God who is both its source and goal. So intense that it must, of its nature, bubble over into the life of the worlds it hopes to heal and develop.
Last year at this time, I wrote a short reflection (The Room of Elisha) on the little monastic cell which the Shunamite woman prepared for Elisha in Haftaras Vayeira . I am returning today to the house of that Shunamite woman to reflect on Elisha’s compassion for her son-- and while I am there I will reflect on Abraham’s relationship with his son Isaac.
The Torah reading (Parshah Vayera) tells of Abraham’s prayer for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It ends with the story of the binding of Isaac. The accompanying reading from the prophets (Haftaras Vayeira) tells the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman and ends with the healing and restoration of the Shunamite’s son by Elisha.
In Parshah Vayera, Abraham is called a “prophet” in what is the first usage of the term “navi” in the Torah. (Genesis 20:7). In Haftaras Vayeira, the Shunamite woman calls Elisha a “Holy Man of God” (II Kings 4:9 and foll). Both terms refer to a person who is perceived as being a tzaddik....a “righteous person”. It is assumed that a tzaddik is one who is intimate with God. (see also Isaiah 41:8) That implies that a tzaddik has a life of prayer, and from our reading of scripture we can see that such prayer was most often in the form of the dialogue which we call hisbodedus.
We read that such a tzaddik “has God’s ear” and that a large part of that dialogue seems to be petitionary prayer and argument. In that verse which introduced us to the word “navi”, we are told that this is a core prophetic activity:
For he is a prophet and he shall pray for you.(Genesis 20:7)
We may not be perfectly righteous ourselves, but we certainly aspire to be “God’s intimate friends” as R.Avraham ben Maimon would put it. Each individual is ultimately responsible for their own choices and deeds- but we all share a common bond of mutual care and support. Abraham was concerned for his brother and for two whole cities worthy of destruction. Elisha was concerned for the welfare of the Shunamite woman and for her sick son. We can attempt to follow the example of Abraham and Elisha in spending a part of our prayer time in direct petition for the needs of others.
Our contemplative prayer is itself a form of petition (whether we make specific requests or not) if we hold the needs of others in our minds when we “draw near to God” (Genesis 18:23) at the start of our prayer sessions. The Shunamite woman called Elisha a “holy man of God”. The separated-dedication implied in the use of the word “holy” reminds contemplatives that it is not our prayers alone that mark out our separation, but the very life-choice to live as contemplatives itself. We are aiming to make our whole lives a prayer, as it were, so that
“God will be with us in all that we do”.(see Genesis 21:22)
But like both Abraham and Elisha, we may find that we are not as “linked up” to the “word” of God as we had thought we were--or as we would like to be.
In II Kings 4:77 we read:
“Let her alone, for her soul is bitter within her and the Lord has hidden it from me and did not tell me.”
I’ve been wondering today if the processes in Abraham’s mind during the binding of Isaac described in Parshas Vayeira (Genesis 22) and that verse from the haftarah (II Kings 4:77) both point to such moments in the life of these two prophets. Were they both examining their relationship to God and doubting their ability as prophets, as those hearing God’s word?
In Abraham’s case , surely he will have been wracked with doubt at the command to sacrifice his own son, Isaac? Did Abraham wonder if he was insane to think that his God would demand such a thing as a human sacrifice? Did he come to his senses at the very last minute and “hear” an internal voice which showed him that his motives were overzealous and derived not so much from a divine wish as from a rather sick part of his mind that he was in the processes of healing? Was his test a complex psychological “game” that his mind put him through, and one whose results are not fully recorded in the text but left for us to guess at. Was the “miracle” here the fact that an animal suitable for sacrifice appeared just at that moment of realisation to act as God’s mark of approval on Abraham’s final mental choice?
In Elisha’s case, God’s purpose in not revealing a situation to Elisha may have had more to do with the other people in the “story” than to Elisha himself - but the text quoted seems (to me) to present him as being almost surprised that he had not been kept informed by his Intimate Friend. That he was perhaps not as intimate with “Him” as he had believed. Perhaps he had begun to forget that all healing comes from God (Psalm 103:2) and that none of a prophet’s healing ability was due to any personal merit--but only to personal gift.
Both the turmoil of Abraham and the disappointment of Elisha (if you choose to accept my view of their reactions) are common to all those who attempt to live full time lives of prayer.
We are not prophets in a biblical sense - but, as Jewish Contemplatives, we are living a type of prophetic lifestyle in their footsteps. In our prayers we may think we have made a judgment or received an insight which has a Divine origin. And we are right to question it like Abraham did. We are centuries away from Abraham, but we are just as likely to have to struggle against “making” God in our own image. In our repetitive daily liturgical routines we may lose sight of the God whose intimacy with us has somehow become obscured by the torrent of letters and words on the page – or perhaps through our inattentive over-familiarity with them.
In our lives of contemplation we must all encounter times of deeply disturbing self-examination like Abraham, and times when we feel the call to re-awaken and enliven our tired inner lives like Elisha. The rise and fall in a person’s spiritual progress is not an accident. It is as natural as breathing, and such processes are not so much trials as gateways to new and more enlightened experience. Negative and positive are not necessarily terms describing good and bad times, they are often complementary and creative forces each with a “good” job to do.
Like Abraham, we ought always to question the commands we perceive we are given. Like Abraham we need to examine how much of what motivates us comes from a part of the self that needs “elevating” out of the dark-side of our soul - and how much of it comes from the bright darkness which God Himself inhabits.
Like Elisha we may find that we have to work hard to restore and repair the selfless link between our prayers and their being answered. Elisha sent his staff to heal the sick son, but this was not enough. He was not fully engaged in his task. Elisha had to “get down and dirty” in there with all his being. (II Kings 4:29-37) and lock himself away with the sick son to bring about healing through whole-hearted, strenuous action. Like Elisha in the house of the Shunamite, we sometimes need to be sequestered with the “dead” areas of our own soul, with the sick or dormant inner child awaiting resurrection.
Sometimes it is a real person (or even an entire nation) whose “infirmity” is the subject of our prayer and which seems to inhabit that Room of Elisha with us. There are times when our mental prayer or our discursive hisbodedus is almost totally concerned with prayer for the sake of others. We may have heard of a disaster or have a friend in need and we take their needs into our prayers. Often, for example, our monastic cell becomes the cell of Gilad Shalit as we visit him there in spirit to try to embrace him with our thoughts of hope and strength.
Looking at these two sons and these two prophets not just as symbols or as characters in a story but as living, breathing, people - the contemplative can see a model for prophetic/contemplative action:
That which spared one son (Isaac) and cured the other (the Shunamite) was the replacement of ruminative or reflective thought with an awakening and an outpouring of pure compassion.
For us- as contemplatives who wish to make a difference by our lives of prayer- I believe we have been given a profound model of a key contemplative process there in Parshah and Haftarah Vayera. Expressed simply, that process is:
Turn your focus inward to examine your thoughts and inspirations, face what you see there bravely, act on the discovery/revelation with all your heart, and then leave those self-focussed exercises behind you as you try to let God work through you. One does this by forgetting oneself and cleaving to God alone. Then with all the breath, heart and might of your being, you can bring about an outpouring of compassion to all the worlds. One of the older theories on the derivation of the word Navi (prophet) suggested that it might come from a root meaning to “bubble over”. Overflowing Compassion. This is how a present day contemplative becomes a “descendant of the prophets”.
N R Davies
October 13 2010
This commentary on Parshah Vayera was cross-posted from the Community of Jewish Contemplatives private website.