Taking Care of Hashem’s Children Bnei Melachim Provides Much-Needed Support for Widows and Orphans
Centuries ago, the custom was instituted that in addition to the weekly Torah portion read in the synagogue on Shabbat, congregations would also read a selection from the Prophets, called the “haftarah.” This custom began during a period of religious persecution, when the government banned the public Torah readings. In order to preserve the memory of the requirement to read from the Torah, communities instituted the reading of a section from the Prophets that was thematically connected to the scheduled Torah reading. This custom was continued even once the ban against Torah reading was lifted, and thus we read each week a haftarahsection after the Torah reading.
Among the more fascinating haftarahreadings is a pair of stories from the Book of Melachim II which we read this month, on the Shabbat of Parashat Vayera, stories of great miracles performed by the prophet Elisha, the disciple and successor of Eliyahu.
The connection between Parashat Vayera and the second of these two stories is quite clear. This story is about a woman – called “the Shunamite woman” – who conceived and had a child after many years of infertility. She and her husband would graciously host the prophet when he came to the area, and they even built for him his own private quarters in their home. Elisha, seeking to reward the woman for her kindness, blessed her that she should bear a child, and she indeed bore a son. This story clearly resembles the story told in Parashat Vayera of the three mysterious guests whom Avraham and Sarah graciously hosted in their home, and who prophesied that Sarah would conceive. Sure enough, a year later, she gave birth to Yitzhak.
Far less clear, however, is the relevance of the first story to Parashat Vayera. In this essay, we take a close look at the miracle described in this story, and explore its possible connections to the parashah, keeping our eyes open to identify the timeless lessons it teaches for living as Torah-observant Jews.
The Prophet Ovadia
The background to the story is the corrupt regime of Ahav, one of the most sinful Biblical figures. Ahav ruled over the Northern Kingdom of Israel several generations after the northern tribes split from the Jewish Kingdom and created their own nation. He embraced idolatry, and married Izevel, a gentile woman from a neighboring country, and she led a ruthless campaign to eradicate the prophets of Gd from the kingdom.
One of the prophets, named Ovadia, held a prominent position in the palace, and was thus spared from Izevel’s deadly assault. A selfless and courageous man, Ovadia risked his life by hiding 100 prophets in caves, and caring for them. He regularly brought them food and water to sustain them until it was safe for them to leave their places of hiding. In order to support this charitable undertaking, Ovadia needed a loan, and so he approached Yehoram, the prince (Ahav’s son), and requested a loan. Yehoram, a wicked idolater like his father, granted Ovadia the loan, but charged a high percentage of interest. As we know, the Torah forbids lenders from charging interest, and also forbids borrowers from paying interest. However, Yehoram had no choice, as this was a matter of life or death for the 100 prophets whom he was trying to save, and so he agreed to the harsh terms of the loan, and continued caring for the prophets with the money he received.
Sometime thereafter, before Ovadia could repay the loan, he died, leaving behind an impoverished widow with two orphan sons and with an enormous burden of debt on her shoulders.
It is here where our haftarahbegins. Desperate and heartbroken, Ovadia’s widow approached Elisha for help. She explained that Yehoram, her deceased husband’s creditor, demanded that she give him her two sons as his servants in lieu of payment of the loan. As she could not afford to repay the debt and the accrued interest, he insisted on receiving all she had left – her two beloved sons.
Elisha asked the woman what she had at home, and she said she had some oil. The prophet instructed her to borrow utensils from her neighbors, and to begin pouring her small bit of oil into them. He added that although she had only a modest amount of oil, she should borrow a large number of utensils. Miraculously, all the utensils were filled with oil. The widow managed to sell the oil for a huge sum of money, with which she paid her husband’s debt, and had plenty left to support her and her sons well into the future.
What connection might there be between this story and the stories told in Parashat Vayera? Why was this story included in the haftarahfor this parashah, together with the story of the Shunamite woman’s miraculous conception?
One explanation is given by Rabbi Eliyahu Ha’kohen of Izmir (late 17th-early 18th century). He takes note of the widow’s startling response to the prophet’s question, “What do you have at home?” She replied that she had just some oil. Ovadia and his wife sacrificed virtually everything they owned for the sake of caring for the 100 prophets fleeing Izevel’s murderous campaign. They subjected themselves to unspeakable poverty and deprivation, to the point where they had nothing at all, except for a bit of oil. In fact, Elisha told the woman to borrow utensils in which to pour her oil, clearly indicating that she did not even own empty utensils. The family was left with nothing. They selflessly committed themselves to rescuing and caring for the 100 prophets to the point where they drove themselves to utter destitution.
By reading this story after reading Parashat Vayera, Rav Eliyahu Ha’kohen writes, we are able to compare this woman’s selflessness with that of one of the most selfless women who ever lived – our matriarch, Sarah. Parashat Vayera begins with the story of the three strangers – who, as it turned out, were actually angels – whom Avraham welcomed into his tent. Our sages teach that Avraham mistook these strangers as idolaters, and yet, he and Sarah graciously welcomed them and treated them to a lavish meal. Ovadia’s wife’s generosity continued the tradition of our great matriarch, who likewise sacrificed to give to others. In fact, Rav Eliyahu Ha’kohen writes, Ovadia’s wife’s kindness exceeded that of Sarah. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) comments that Sarah was not as generous as she should have been when Avraham welcomed the three strangers, as Avraham requested that she prepare bread from solet– fine flour – and she instead baked with kemah– ordinary flour. Ovadia’s wife, by contrast, exhibited unlimited selflessness, sparing absolutely nothing for the sake of the 100 prophets, and thrusting herself into a state of dire poverty in order to help others.
This story, then, continues the theme of generosity and selflessness that features prominently in Parashat Vayera, presenting for us an astonishing model of kindness that exceeds even the legendary kindness of Sarah Imenu.
Avraham and Yishmael
There is, however, an additional point of connection between the story of Ovadia’s wife and Parashat Vayera, a connection developed by the current Rebbe of Bobov.
Much later in the parashah, we read of a very painful decision that Avraham had to make – one which we hope and pray that no parent should ever have to make, namely, to send his son away from the house.
The Torah relates that Avraham’s older son, Yishmael, who was born to Sarah’s maidservant, mistreated and threatened the younger son, Yitzhak, who was born to Sarah. Seeing the dire threat that Yishmael posed to her son, Sarah turned to Avraham and demanded that he send Yishmael and his mother away from the home. The Torah tells, “The matter was very bad in Avraham’s eyes, about his son” (Beresheet 21:11). Gd then spoke to Avraham and commanded him to accede to Sarah’s demand, and the very next day, Avraham sent Yishmael and his mother, Hagar, away. (Later in the Book of Beresheet, Rashi informs us that Yishmael repented, and that Avraham remarried Hagar, such that this very tragic episode had a happy ending.)
Commenting on the aforementioned verse – “The matter was very bad in Avraham’s eyes” – Rashi writes, “That he heard that Yishmael fell into bad behavior.” At first glance, Rashi appears to explain that Avraham was troubled by the fact that his son acted sinfully, that he begot a child who grew to become violent and evil. The Rebbe of Bobov, however, understood Rashi’s comments differently. Avraham was disturbed, he explained, because he had to hear from Sarah about Yishmael’s wayward behavior, rather than noticing it himself. Hard as it may be to believe, Avraham failed to see Yishmael’s negative and dangerous character traits. The Midrash comments that Avraham, like all parents, loved his son, and this love led him to overlook Yishmael’s evil conduct. As such, he did not know of Yishmael’s evil ways until they were reported to him by Sarah. And this is what disturbed Avraham. “The matter was very bad in Avraham’s eyes.” He was troubled by the fact that he had not detected Yishmael’s negative tendencies earlier, when there was still time to try to correct them. The verse concludes, “about his son” – the reason for this mistake was the fact that Yishmael was Avraham’s beloved son, and so he did not accurately assess his conduct. And this pained Avraham more than anything – that he had failed to guide, discipline and direct Yishmael when he had the chance to do so. Educating his children was Avraham’s highest priority, and so the mistake he made in the upbringing of Yishmael caused him overbearing angst.
Sarah, to her credit, made the bold decision to confront her husband and insist that he take this unfathomably difficult measure. Yitzhak’s education was her highest priority, and so she did not allow anything to get in the way. She undoubtedly knew how hard it would be for Avraham to send away his son, but if Yitzhak’s education was at stake, she was determined to make this happen.
The Rebbe explained that this forms the basis of the connection between Parashat Vayera and the story of Ovadia’s wife. When Ovadia’s wife approached Elisha for help, she explained that the prince, Yehoram, demanded that she give him her sons to be his servants. She did not complain about her state of destitution, about her being a poor widow, about the suffering she had endured for the sake of saving 100 righteous men. None of this mattered to her. What mattered was that her sons were about to be taken into the service of a wicked man, and they would then be led along the path of idolatry and sin. This was the problem that brought her to seek the prophet’s advice. She could tolerate financial hardship and the loneliness of widowhood, but not the prospect of her sons’ becoming idolaters.
The connection between these two stories, then, is the priority of hinuch – properly educating children. This priority underlies the tense, heartbreaking story of Yishmael’s banishment, and also sets the background to the story of Ovadia’s wife, who sought the prophet’s assistance only when her children’s spiritual future was at risk.
The Message of the Mezuzah
We all, thank Gd, have mezuzoton our doorposts. The mitzvah of mezuzah is among those rare mitzvot which are observed by a very large percentage of Jews, including many who might not be meticulous about many other Torah commands. What is the message of the mezuzah? What is so important about that small piece of parchment that leads Jews of all kinds and backgrounds to place it on their doorposts?
The parchment of the mezuzah contains the text of the first two paragraphs of the Shema, which we recite in our prayers each day. Both these paragraphs include the command to educate our children: “Veshinantam levanecha” (Devarim 6:7); “Velimadetem otam et benechem” (Devarim 11:19). And in both paragraphs, the command of educating children is immediately followed by the mitzvahof tefillin. The obligation of tefillin is unique in that it requires a person to remain aware of his tefillinthroughout the time he wears them. Halachahforbids “heseh hada’at” – taking one’s mind off one’s tefillin at any point while he wears it. In fact, the siddur that I use each morning for prayer has the word “tefillin” written on every page, to ensure that I keep my tefillinin my mind as I pray. And this is why the Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of tefillin with the mitzvahof education. Like tefillin, education requires constant focus and attention. Parents can never look away or take their minds off their children’s education. Their educational and spiritual growth must occupy the parents’ minds at all times, throughout the day, every day. Although many different concerns and interests occupy our minds over the course of any day, our children’s hinuchmust always receive our highest priority.
We are not expected to reach the remarkable level of Ovadia’s wife. The extent of her selflessness and self-sacrifice is extraordinary and beyond anything we can or should demand of ourselves. But her extreme example sets for us a model which we must follow, albeit in more moderate form. Let us think for a moment about the problems that disturb us, that weigh on our minds, that cause us anguish and throw us into a bad mood. And let us ask ourselves, where does our children’s religious development appear on the list, if at all? We are troubled by petty annoyances like a parking spot we didn’t get, or a housekeeper who calls in sick, or by less petty problems such as a promotion that we were not granted or a business deal that fell through. It is understandable that these problems will cause us distress, but let’s ask ourselves honestly, do we invest the same degree of emotional energy into our children’s education? Are we as attentive to their religious growth as we are to our business affairs, or to the décor in our homes?
Life would be much easier if we took a relaxed, laid-back attitude to our children’s Torah education and spiritual development. It’s much easier to sleep or socialize all Shabbat afternoon instead of spending time learning with our children. It’s much easier to allow our children to go wherever they want, and to act, speak and dress as they wish, without having to set and enforce proper boundaries and standards. But each time we walk into our homes and glance at the mezuzah sitting quietly on the doorframe, we are reminded that we cannot allow ourselves this luxury, that Torah education is the number one priority in the home, and must assume the lion’s share of our time and attention.
Avraham and Sarah, and our ancestors throughout the ages, made enormous sacrifices for the sake of their children’s education. Let us follow and perpetuate their legacy, by making our children’s development into Torah Jews our single highest priority, and by treating is as the most important job, and the most precious privilege, that we are given in our lives.