Eliyahu and Ovadia – Contrasting Attitudes towards Involvement with the Jewish People

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


This shiur is dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their ninth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray


Eliyahu’s departure

Our haftara (Melakhim I ch. 18) presents a tension between Eliyahu and Ovadia. In the previous chapters, Eliyahu had decreed that there would be no rain, because Am Yisrael were worshipping idols instead of God. God does not agree with Eliyahu’s decree because it causes human suffering, and He puts Eliyahu through an educational process so that he will come to recognize this.

Eliyahu’s dealings are with Achav, who is described, in the chapter preceding the haftara, as an extremely wicked king:

“And Achav, the son of Omri, did evil in the sight of the Lord – more than all that were before him. And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Yarovam, son of Nevat, that he took as a wife Izevel, daughter of Etba’al, king of the Tzidonim, and went and served Ba’al, and prostrated himself to him. And he raised an altar for Ba’al in the house of Ba’al which he had built in Shomron. And Achav made an ashera, and Achav did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” (Melakhim I 16:30-34)

Achav is wicked not only in the religious sense, but also morally – as is evident in the story of Navot’s vineyard. Nevertheless, God later commands Eliyahu to go and meet him: “Go, appear before Achav” (Melakhim I 18:1). Let us try to trace the process of rapprochement between Eliyahu, Achav and Am Yisrael.

In the previous chapter, Eliyahu had separated himself from the people, after apparently becoming disillusioned with them:

“And Eliyahu the Tishbi, who was of the inhabitants of Gilad, said to Achav: ‘As the Lord God of Israel lives, before Whom I stand, there shall be no dew or rain these years, but according to my word.’ And the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go from here, and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the wadi of Kerit, which is east of the Jordan. And it shall be, that you shall drink of the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and dwelled by the wadi of Kerit, which is east of the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank of the wadi. And it came to pass after a while that the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.” (Melakhim I 17:1-7)

From Eliyahu’s point of view, his stay by the wadi is a sort of meditational isolation, and the ravens that pay regular visits are a miracle that keeps him alive. The Gemara offers the following depiction:

“R. Yossi taught in Tzippori, ‘Eliyahu was hot-tempered.’ [Eliyahu] used to visit [R. Yossi], but [following this] he absented himself for three days and did not come. When he came [on the fourth day], [R. Yossi] said to him, ‘Why did you not come before?’ He replied, ‘Because you called me hot-tempered.’ To which [R. Yossi] retorted, ‘But before us you have displayed your temper, sir!’” (Sanhedrin 113b)

On compassion

It may be that the description of Eliyahu’s miraculous existence by the wadi is meant to convey criticism of his behavior. In the normal functioning of the world, man assumes responsibility for animals (as Achav and Ovadia in fact do, later on), and a situation in which animals are taking care of a person is not ideal. Moreover, it is clear that the way in which Eliyahu is sustained cannot be viewed as guidance for the masses. From this point onwards, God gently prods Eliyahu back into the world.

As a first stage, God reawakens his compassion, by arranging for him to encounter a difficult situation:

“And the word of the Lord came to him, saying: Arise, go to Tzarfat, which belongs to Tzidon, and dwell there; behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain you. So he arose and went to Tzarfat. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering sticks, and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray you, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray you, a morsel of bread in your hand. And she said, As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, but a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in the cruse, and behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and prepare it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die. And Eliyahu said to her, Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a little cake of it first, and bring it to me, and afterwards make for you and for your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel: The jar of meal shall not be spent, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth. And she went and did according to the word of Eliyahu, and she, and he, and her house, ate for many days. And the jar of meal was not consumed, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which He spoke by Eliyahu.” (Melakhim I 17:8-16)

Later on, God presents Eliyahu with yet another test:

“And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick, and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Eliyahu, What have I to do with you, O man of God? Have you come to me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son? And he said to her, Give me your son. And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the upper chamber, where he stayed, and he laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, have You also brought evil upon the widow with whom I lodge, by slaying her son? And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray you, let this child’s soul return to him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Eliyahu, and the soul of the child returned to him again, and he revived. And Eliyahu took the child and brought him down out of the upper chamber, into the house, and delivered him to his mother. And Eliyahu said, See, your son lives. And the woman said to Eliyahu, Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (Melakhim I 17:17-24)

What is the purpose of this episode? The Gemara elaborates:

“‘And it came to pass after a while that the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land’: When [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came to him, saying, Arise, go to Tzarfat,’ and it is written, ‘And it came to pass after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick.’ Eliyahu prayed that the keys of resurrection be given to him, but he was answered, ‘[There are] three keys [that] have never been entrusted to any agent: of birth, of rain, and of resurrection. Shall it then be said, Two are in the hands of the disciple [i.e., Eliyahu] and [only] one remains in the hand of the Master [i.e., God]? Bring back the others, and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, appear before Achav, and I will send rain…’” (Sanhedrin 113a)

God ‘takes back,’ as it were, the key for rain, and sends Eliyahu to appear before Achav:

“And it came to pass after many days that the word of the Lord came to Eliyahu in the third year, saying: Go, appear before Achav, and I will send rain upon the earth. And Eliyahu went to appear before Achav. And there was severe famine in Shomron. And Achav called Ovadiahu, who was the governor of his house. And Ovadiahu feared the Lord greatly, for so it was, when Izevel cut off the prophets of the Lord, that Ovadia took a hundred prophets and hid them fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.” (Melakhim I 18:1-5)

The encounter with Achav

As a contrast to Eliyahu, who flees from human reality, we are presented with Ovadia, who is defined as “fearing the Lord greatly.” The Gemara elaborates:

“R. Abba said: Greater [praise] was said of Ovadiahu than of Avraham. Concerning Avraham the Torah does not say [that he feared God] ‘greatly,’ while concerning Ovadiahu it does say ‘greatly.’” (Sanhedrin 39b)

What praise is being conveyed concerning Ovadia? Avraham served God, but he did not face opposition from his environment (at least not at the time of the akeda, which is the context in which the verse attesting to his fear of God appears). Ovadia, on the other hand, is part of Achav’s government; he serves as “governor of the house” for an idolatrous regime. Why does Ovadia choose to perform this role, rather than separating himself as Eliyahu does? Because Ovadia understands that if he insists on the purity his principles, he will not be able to save anything.

Because Ovadia remains, he is able to save a hundred prophets. Eliyahu would not agree to join Achav, and therefore he goes off to the wadi of Kerit. From there, step by step, God shows him the way back. First he is sent to the woman of Tzarfat, so that he can see that while the government is against him, the simple people do not think so badly of him even though it is on his account that they are hungry. Later on, God commands him to appear before Achav, to meet with him and talk with him.

We see a similar scenario involving Aharon. The Gemara teaches:

“A difference of opinion was expressed by R. Tanchum bar Chanilai. He says that the verse in question refers only to the story of the golden calf, as it is written, ‘And when Aharon saw it, he built an altar before it.’ What was it that he saw? R. Binyamin bar Yefet said, in the name of R. Elazar: ‘He saw Chur lying slain before him, and said [to himself], If I do not obey them, they will do to me as they did to Chur, and so will be fulfilled [the prophecy], “Shall priest and prophet be slain in God’s Sanctuary?” – and they will never find forgivenenss.’” (Sanhedrin 7a)

The Gemara explains that Chur had protested the building of a golden calf, and the people had killed him. Observing this, Aharon had understood that objecting would not achieve anything. Rashi and the Tosafot disagree over “the verse in question” that refers us to the story of the golden calf. Rashi says,

“‘And the greedy wretch curses (u-votze’a berekh)…’ (Tehillim 10:3) – this refers to the golden calf, where Aharon made a compromise with himself and permitted himself to make a golden calf for them.

‘And he built an altar (mizbeach)’ – He understood from the slaughtered one (me-ha-zavuach) in front of him that they had killed Chur because he had not made it for them.”

According to Rashi, the verse in Tehillim conveys very strong criticism of Aharon: “The greedy wretch curses and renounces the Lord”! The Tosafot, however, adopts a different view:

“‘This refers to the golden calf’ – the verse in question is ‘The Torah of truth was in his mouth’ (Malakhi 2:6), as it says at the end of that verse: ‘and he turned back many from sin’ – he concluded that they could attain repair.”

The disagreement between Rashi and Tosafot reflects the same dilemma that faced Eliyahu and Ovadia. Aharon chooses to compromise, to remain part of the nation in order not to be killed, at the price of having a part in the building of the golden calf. Was this a betrayal of his principles, as reflected in the phrase from Tehillim, or was he doing the right thing and saving what he was able to save, as it is written with regard to him, ‘And he turned back many from sin’?

Eliyahu and Ovadia

Eliyahu rejoins the people, but is not satisfied; following the miraculous events at Mount Carmel, he says:

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, because Bnei Yisrael have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I, alone, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (Melakhim I 19:14-15)

Even after the great religious experience at Mount Carmel, Eliyahu does not believe that the declaration, “The Lord is God” has meaning for the people; he feels that “I alone am left.”

But God hints to Eliyahu that he must remain involved with the nation. Even if a person decides to be part of the national opposition, he is still bound and committed to what is going on. Within a family, too, there may be anger, but there must not be bitterness that causes a loss of the fundamental family bond. Within the family setting people often make all kinds of statements without thinking, and afterwards feel regret. Political statements likewise often cause people to wish that they had not said what they did.

A person must ask himself to what extent he is able to influence others. One may adhere to his principles and remain separate, and thus exert no influence, or he may relent on some principles, but succeed to some measure. Every person must choose where he wishes to stand. While it may be that Eliyahu saved an abstract Judaism, “Yiddishkeit,” Ovadia saved actual Jews, ensuring that the children of prophets survived.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Ki Tisa 5774 [2014].)