It was one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history. The nation was divided into two kingdoms, and the ruler of the Northern Kingdom, Ahav, married a gentile woman who worshipped idols, Queen Izevel. As part of her effort to institutionalize idol-worship in the country, Izevel embarked on a ruthless campaign to rid the kingdom of authentic prophets, those who spoke out about the evils of idol-worship. The majority of them were killed in cold blood, and only 100 remained.
One man, named Ovadia, selflessly took on the dangerous task of protecting the surviving prophets. He hid them in two separate caves – fifty in each – and brought them food provisions each day. This necessitated selling his personal belongings so he could purchase enough food. Ovadia made an enormous sacrifice, and put himself at great risk, for the sake of rescuing the lives of the remaining prophets.
When he ran out of funds, he had no choice but to borrow money. He approached the prince – Ahav’s son, Yoram – who was very wealthy and had the wherewithal to grant a considerable loan. Sinful like his father, Yoram demanded interest, which the Torah strictly forbids. Normally, it is forbidden not only to charge interest, but also to pay interest, but Ovadia had no choice. This was a matter of life-and-death, and so he signed the contract and received the loan on interest so he could continue his life-saving mission.
Tragically, Ovadia died, leaving behind a destitute widow with her two orphans, and a large amount of debt that continued to grow. The dire situation quickly turned outright horrific, when Yoram – the creditor – demanded that the widow give him her two sons as slaves in lieu of the loan payments which she was unable to make.
This is the background to the story in the Book of Melachim II (chapter 4) which we read this month, as the haftara (selection from the Prophets) for Shabbat Parashat Vayera.
The haftarah begins with the downtrodden widow desperately approaching the prophet Elisha and begging for help. Elisha replied by asking her if she had anything at home, and she replied that she had some oil. He instructed her to borrow utensils from her neighbors – as many as she could – and then pour the oil from her flask into these utensils.
Miraculously, the oil jug kept pouring oil until all the utensils were filled. The prophet then advised the widow to sell the oil and use the money to repay her debt. The remaining funds would be used to support the family. This is how Elisha saved Ovadia’s widow and two sons from slavery and poverty.
The Widow’s Greatest Concern
When analyzing this story, there are a number of interesting elements to consider. First, let us take a moment to think of the state of destitution in which this woman and her sons lived. When Elisha asked her what she had in her home, she said all she had was a little oil. She had nothing else. She even had to borrow utensils. The family lacked even basic items such as bowls and containers.
And yet, when she approached Elisha for help, Ovadia’s wife did not complain. She did not say, “Look at what my husband did! He gave away everything we had! He died and left me with no possessions and lots of debt!” On the contrary, she complimented her husband, telling Elisha, “Your servant, my husband, died, and you know that your servant was Gd-fearing…” Ovadia’s widow fully supported her husband’s righteous endeavor and was fully prepared to make the difficult sacrifices entailed. She understood the grave importance of protecting and supporting the remaining prophets, and did not object to her husband’s selling all their possessions, and then incurring debt, for this holy purpose. As hard it was, she was willing to sacrifice her material comforts for the sake of this vitally important mitzvah.
There was only thing that troubled the widow. She cried to Elisha, “The creditor is coming to take my two sons for himself as slaves.” One commentator noted that what concerned the woman was that her sons would be taken “for himself as slaves” – to be the slaves of an evil idolater, Yoram. She did not care about money or about her material possessions. Her highest priority,
and greatest concern, was her sons’ spiritual wellbeing. And so as long as it was only her property that was at stake, she was not troubled. She ran to Elisha for help only when her sons’ upbringing was being threatened, when they were at risk of being transformed from servants of Gd into servants of a sinful idolater; when they were in danger of being forced out of her home and being raised with foreign values and beliefs.
We might add that this is perhaps the meaning of Elisha’s question, “What do you have at home?” and the widow’s response, “All I have is oil.”
The Gemara (Shabbat 23b) teaches that in the merit of the mitzvah of Shabbat candles, one is rewarded with children who become outstanding Torah scholars. This is why Shabbat candle lighting has always been considered an especially auspicious time to pray for one’s children’s spiritual success. Indeed, many women have the practice to spend some time after lighting the candles praying that their children should be righteous and proficient in Torah. Perhaps, then, when Elisha asked the widow, “What do you have at home?” he meant, “What merits does your home have, on account of which you are deserving of a miracle?”
The woman answered, “I have nothing, other than oil.” She humbly replied that she had no special merit – other than her commitment to her home’s “oil,” to raising her sons along the path of Torah and sanctity. It was specifically because this was her home’s highest priority that she was terror-stricken at the prospect of her sons being raised in the home of an idolater and that she desperately sought Elisha’s help.
The Mezuzah’s Message
At the entrance to every Jewish home there is a mezuzah affixed to the right side of the doorframe. One of the Chassidic masters noted that the right side signifies importance and prominence, and so every time we enter our home, we look at the mezuzah and are reminded of what the home’s priority must be. The mezuzah contains parchment upon which the first two paragraphs of the Shema are written. These include the commands, “Veshinantam levanecha” and “Velimadetem otam et benechem” – which obligate us to teach our children Torah, to educate them according to Torah values and tradition. This is the message conveyed to us by the mezuzah every time we walk through our front door – that our highest property must be teaching our children, raising them to become devoted servants of Gd.
The Zohar comments that the first paragraph of Shema is associated with the Ten Commandments. Starting with the command, “Veshinantam levanecha” (“You shall teach them to your children”), the Zohar lists ten phrases in this paragraph, which correspond to the Ten Commandments which Gd proclaimed at Mount Sinai. According to this correspondence, the command to teach one’s children Torah is associated with the first of the Ten Commandments – “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” (“I am Hashem your Gd”), the obligation of emunah, to believe in the existence of a Creator who governs the world. This is how critically important,
and how central, Torah education is to religious life. Embedded within the command to believe in Hashem is a command to perpetuate this belief through education, by doing everything we can to instill within our children this faith and a commitment to obey Gd’s will. This responsibility is part and parcel of fundamental Jewish faith.
Protecting Our Children
Today, our children are all at risk of being taken as “slaves” to foreign beliefs and values. Our society’s alluring culture threatens to draw our youngsters’ loyalties away from Torah, towards celebrities, meaningless entertainment, decadence, overindulgence, and materialism.
As we face this danger, the character of Ovadia’s widow serves as an inspiring role model. No, we are not expected to sell our belongings and cast ourselves and our families into destitution for the sake of supporting Torah scholars, as Ovadia and his wife did. Nevertheless, their example teaches us about where our priorities must lie. For them, material possessions took a backseat to supporting Torah and instilling Torah values within their children. They were prepared to give away everything except the “oil,” except what they needed to kindle the light of Torah in their homes. This was their highest priority – and it must be our highest priority, as well.
Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth and enjoying it. Poverty is not a virtue, and we are entitled and expected to strive to live comfortably. The problem becomes when the quest for luxury and comforts becomes one’s top priority, his primary pursuit and point of focus. We must be happily prepared to compromise our material
standards for the sake of our and our children’s Torah education. This is what the mezuzah announces to us each time we arrive at our doorstep – that there can be nothing more important in our home than Torah education. Although we are all involved in many different things throughout the day, including many important and worthwhile undertakings, we must never forget that our single highest priority is ensuring the transmission of Torah to the next generation by raising our children along the path of Torah, and generously supporting our Torah educational institutions.
May we all succeed in kindling the light of Torah within our homes, and be rewarded with children who grow to become devoted servants of Gd and sources of pride to us, our community, and the entire Jewish Nation, amen.