Giving is an important component of living a Jewish life. We give in all sorts of way. Mostly, however, it is giving of ourselves that we are called upon to do. And when we do for others, it is inherent upon us that we make the recipient of our giving the focus of our concern, and not focus on ourselves. When we offer hospitality, it is not for ourselves, not for any reward or return. We offer hospitality, compassion, support, help, et al in order to be in imitatio Dei, imitating G”d. And because this is what G”d commands us to do through the mitzvot.
Many of us have special gifts that we share. When we are endowed by our Creator with these skills, these special gifts, it is incumbent upon us to share them in service to the community, in service to G”d. In many ways, I’ve built my life around this. My skills as a musician and as an educator are the very things that led me to my Jewish career. I can honestly say that I feel compelled to use these services in service to Judaism, and ultimately, to G”d. Yes, I am compensated for this work . Does that invalidate my choice to use these skills as my way of giving?
In this week’s haftarah, we read stories of the prophet Elisha, a disciple of Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet.) Being endowed with the ability to be G”d’s agent in dispensing miracles, Elisha does so. In return for the constant hospitality of a women in Shunam during his regular visits there, he provides this Shunnamite woman, who is childless and has a husband old in years, with the promise of a child, which promise, of course, is fulfilled. This couple had been so hospitable as to set aside and furnish a special room in their house just for Elisha to use. The text indicates that they believed Elisha to be a holy man, a man of G”d, and then they decided to provide this more or less permanent space. One might infer from this that their motivations weren’t entirely selfless, but one could just as easily infer the opposite in the absence of the text making it clear one way or the other. But it is not their motives or actions that are the focus of this musing.
Like Sarah, the Shunnamite woman is incredulous and says to Elisha “do not delude” me. A foreshadowing, perhaps?
Surely a childless woman would want a child. Seems like a nice way of saying thank you, of Elisha using his gift in the service of others. Is it only incredulity, or is she perhaps a bit wary?
But all is not as it seems. Some time later, when this miraculous child is older, he is taken ill and dies. The Shunnamite woman goes to Elisha. He can clearly see that she is in great distress. She says to him “did I ask you for a son? Didn’t I say ‘don’t mislead me’?” Elisha then orders his servant to hurry back to the woman’s house and place Elisha’s staff upon the dead child.
Elisha himself soon follows, with the Shunnamite woman in tow. He performs what can only best be described as CPR, and the child is restored to life. He calls in the Shunnamite woman, who bows in respect to Elisha, picks up her son and leaves. And the story ends there, with only this silent thank you.
Did Elisha learn anything from what happened here? Did he perhaps consider that by using his gift to give this woman a child, he might not be doing the best thing? All our actions, including our most giving, selfless acts, have consequences.
Or did Elisha, armed with the self-knowledge of his gifts to work miracles, learn to not worry too much about consequences, knowing that he could, as he did in this case, fix the problem with yet another miracle. The temptations we face when we are powerful are often dangerous. Remember that early Star Trek episode with the crewman who gained incredible G”d-like powers, and soon began seeing his crewmates as mere annoyances?
This is not the usual read we get from this story of Elisha (who performs a total of 8 miracles in that are mentioned in the text of the Tanakh.) Yet I think it is a read we should consider. We are, none of us, like Elisha. Every his very bones in his grave were able to restore life. (II Kings 13:21) We might not be able to fix the problems we created with our initial gift. We must consider the appropriateness of our giving, and always put the needs of the recipient uppermost in our thoughts.
These cautions are not meant to prevent us from being people who are giving routinely and as an ingrained way of living. They are meant to focus our thoughts on the giving, the recipient, and not ourselves. Are we always so thoughtful in our giving? A good thing to ponder this Shabbat. I know I will.
©2015 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on This Parasha
Vayeira 5775 – He’s a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 – Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 – Well?
Vayera 5771 – Density
Vayera 5770 – Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 – He’s a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the “Journal of Lot”
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or “Non-Linear Thinking?”)
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties