Eliyahu and Ovadyahu – Contrasting Attitudes Toward the Jewish People

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by David Strauss
Dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Leon Brum for the Refua Sheleima of
Dana Petrover (Batsheva bat Gittel Aidel Leba)
and Marvin Rosenberg (Meir Chaim ben Tzipporah Miriam)
In memory of six friends and family,
strong pillars of the Montreal Jewish community,
who have left us in the past seven years.
All were אוהבי עם ישראל, אוהבי ארץ ישראל, אוהבי תורת ישראל.
Joseph (Yosie) Deitcher
Avrum (Avy) Drazin
Rabbi Joseph Drazin
Leibel Frisch
Israel (Mutch) Yampolsky
Dr. Mark Wainberg
Eliyahu’s Withdrawal from Society
In the haftara from the Book of Melakhim, we see the tension between Eliyahu and Ovadyahu. In the chapters preceding the haftara, Eliyahu decrees that rain shall not fall, because the people of Israel are worshipping idols in place of the God of Israel. God refuses to accept this course of action because of the human suffering that it entails and leads Eliyahu through an educational process to teach him where he has gone wrong.
It should be remembered that Eliyahu is engaged in a fierce struggle with Achav, who in the previous chapter is described as a most evil king:
And Achav the son of Omri did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord above 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 Yerovam the son of Nevat, that he took to wife Izevel the daughter of Etba'al, king of the Tzidonim; and he went and served Ba'al, and worshipped him.
And he reared up an altar for Ba'al in the house of Ba'al which he had built in Shomeron. And Achav made the Asheira; and Achav did yet more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel that were before him. (I Melakhim 16:30-33)
Let us remember that Achav is not only an evil king from a religious perspective, but from a moral perspective as well, as is evidenced by the incident involving the vineyard of Navot. Nevertheless, God asks Eliyahu to meet with Achav: "Go, show yourself to Achav." Let us try to understand the process of Eliyahu's confronting Achav and the people of Israel.
In the previous chapter Eliyahu withdraws from the people, as it appears, because he is disappointed with them:
And Eliyahu the Tishbi, who was of the inhabitants of Gilad, said to Achav: As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall neither be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.
And the word of the Lord came to him, saying: Get you hence, and turn you eastward, and hide yourself by Kerit Brook, that is before the Jordan. And it shall be, that you shall drink of the brook; 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 dwelt by Kerit Brook, that is before the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land. (I Melakhim 17:1-7)
From Eliyahu's perspective, withdrawing to the brook is a kind of seclusion, and the ravens that arrive are a miracle designed to feed him. This is also the way that Eliyahu is described in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (113a-b)
Rabbi Yosei taught in Tzipori: Father Eliyahu was a hot-tempered man.
Now, he [Eliyahu] used to visit him, but [after this] he absented himself three days and did not come.
When he came on the fourth day, he [Rabbi Yosei] said to him: Why did you not come before?
He replied: [Because] you called me hot-tempered.
He said to him: Then before us my lord has displayed his hot temper!
Regarding Compassion


It is possible, however, that the verses are in fact criticizing Eliyahu's behavior. When the world is running properly, man takes responsibility for animals (as indeed Achav and Ovadyahu do later in the story); the situation in which animals take care of a human is by no means ideal. Moreover, it is clear that the way that Eliyahu is being maintained cannot be a model for the masses, and henceforth, God tries to bring him back once again into the world.
At the first stage, God reawakens Eliyahu's compassion by bringing him face to face with the difficult situation. Eliyahu is sent to Tzorfat, in order to stir up his feelings of mercy:
And the word of the Lord came to him, saying: Arise, get you to Tzorfat, which belongs to Tzidon, and dwell there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you. 
So he arose and went to Tzorfat; and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow 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 not a cake, only a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the cruse; and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
And Eliyahu said to her: Fear not; go and do as you have said; but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it forth to me, and afterward make for you and for your son. For thus says the Lord, the 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 land. 
And she went and did according to the saying of Eliyahu; and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. The jar of meal was not spent, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which He spoke by Eliyahu. (I Melakhim 17:8-16)
Below, God puts Eliyahu to 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 sore, that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Eliyahu: What have I to do with you, O you man of God? Did you come to me to bring 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 abode, and 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 sojourn, 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 come back into him.
And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Eliyahu; and the soul of the child came back into him, 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 I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth. (I Melakhim 1:17-24)
What is the role of this passage? In that same Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin that we saw earlier, it is stated:
"And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land" (I Melakhim 17:7). Now, 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, get you to Tzorfat" (ibid. vv. 8-9). And it is further written: "And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick" (ibid. v. 17).
Eliyahu prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered: Three keys have not been entrusted to an intermediary [between man and God]: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said: Two are in the hands of the disciple and [only] one in the hand of the Master? Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written: "Go, show yourself to Achav; and I will send rain upon the earth" (I Melakhim 18:1). (Sanhedrin 113a)
God takes back the key to rain, and He sends Eliyahu to meet Achav:
And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Eliyahu, in the third year, saying: Go, show yourself to Achav, and I will send rain upon the land. And Eliyahu went to show himself to Achav. And the famine was sore in Shomeron. And Achav called Ovadyahu, who was over the household. Now Ovadyahu feared the Lord greatly; for it was so, when Izevel cut off the prophets of the Lord, that Ovadyahu took a hundred prophets, and hid them fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water (I Melakhim 18:1-5)
The Meeting With Achav
Contrasting with Eliyahu, who runs away from the human world, we meet Ovadyahu. Ovadyahu is described as one who "feared the Lord greatly." The Gemara in Sanhedrin (39b) states:
Rabbi Abba said: Greater [praise] was expressed of Ovadyahu than Avraham, since of Avraham the word "greatly" is not used, while of Ovadyahu it is.
Ovadyahu was more God-fearing that was Avraham, for about him it is stated that he feared the Lord "greatly," whereas about Avraham it is merely stated that he feared the Lord, without the modifier "greatly."
Why? Avraham serves God, but this raises no objection among those around him. By contrast, Ovadyahu is a member of Achav's administration ("over his household") in a government that worshipped idols. Why does Ovadyahu join Achav's government, rather than separate himself from him as does Eliyahu? Despite his principles, Ovadyahu understands that were he to do that, it would only lead to further strife and division, and he would not be able to save anything or anyone.
By staying, Ovadyahu succeeds in saving a hundred prophets. Eliyahu refuses to enter that world and therefore goes to Kerit Brook, and God slowly signals to him the way back. First He takes him to the woman in Tzorfat, to show him that even though the government might be against him and against his worldview, the ordinary people have no bad thoughts about him, even though they are hungry because of him. Later, He tells him to go to Achav, to meet with him and to negotiate with him.
Parallel to Aharon
The same is true about Aharon. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (7a) states:
He disagrees with Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai, for Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai said: This verse refers only to the story of the Golden Calf, as it is written: "And when Aharon saw it, he built an altar before it" (Shemot 32:5).
What did he actually see? Rabbi Benyamin bar Yefet said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: He saw Chur lying slain before him and said [to himself]: If I do not obey them, they will now do to me as they did to Chur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, "Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of God?" (Eikha 2:20), and they will never find forgiveness. Better let them worship the Golden Calf, for which offence they may yet find forgiveness through repentance. (Sanhedrin 7a)
The Gemara says that Aharon witnesses the killing of Chur, after the latter objects to the fashioning of the Golden Calf, and therefore he understands that opposing the enterprise will be to no avail.
Rashi and Tosafot disagree about the identity of "this verse" in connection with Aharon. Rashi writes:
“This verse” — “U-votzeia beireikh” (Tehillim 10:3, "A compromiser blesses himself").
“Refers only to the story of the Golden Calf” — For Aharon made a compromise with himself, and he issued an allowance to himself to fashion for them a Calf.
"He built an altar (Vayiven mizbeiach)" — He understood (heivin) from the one slaughtered (mi-zavuach) before him, for they killed Chur for not making for them [the Golden Calf].
According to Rashi, this is a very harsh criticism of Aaron: "A compromiser blesses himself, though he contemns the Lord." Tosafot, on the other hand, write:
“Refers only to the story of the Golden Calf” — This refers to the verse: "The law of truth was in his mouth" (Malakhi 2:6), as it says at the end of it: "And did turn many away from iniquity" — that they may yet find forgiveness.
The dispute between Rashi and Tosafot reflects the wavering between Eliyahu and Ovadyahu. Aharon opts for compromise, to join the people so as not to be killed, at the cost of supporting the fashioning of the Golden Calf. Does he betray his principles, so that we should apply to him: “A compromiser blesses himself, though he contemns the Lord”? Or does he do the right thing and save what he could save, so that we should apply to him: "And did turn many away from iniquity"?
Eliyahu and Ovadyahu
Eliyahu does indeed come in to and connect with the people, but this does not satisfy him, and after the assembly at Mount Carmel, Eliyahu says:
I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (I Melakhim 19:14)
Even after the assembly at Mount Carmel, Eliyahu does not think that the statement "The Lord is God" has meaningful content, since he feels "and I, even I only, am left."
However, God indicates to Eliyahu that he must involve himself with the people. Even if one decides to be part of the national opposition, at least one has an emotional connection to the people. Even within a person's family, anger is permitted, but there must not be bitterness that will bring about the absence of any emotional connection.
Within the family framework, many people make intuitive statements without thinking, and in retrospect wish to take their words back. The same is true about various political statements; we often regret having said certain things.
Each person is faced with the question of to what extent one is capable of influencing others. A person may uphold high principles and remain on the outside and not exert influence, or one may compromise on certain principles but succeed in saving something. Each person can choose where one wants to be. We may say that Eliyahu saves abstract Judaism, "Yiddishkeit" — but Ovadyahu saves Jews and provides a refuge for the children of the prophets.
[This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tisa 5774 (2014).]