On the rare occasions when Parashat Pinchas is read before Shiva Assar Be’Tammuz (as is the case this year – 5776 – in Israel), the section read as the haftara is the story of Eliyahu’s experiences in the aftermath of the great miracle at Mount Carmel (Melakhim II 19). At Mount Carmel, Eliyahu openly confronted the pagan prophets of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, challenging them to prove that the deity they worshipped – Ba’al – hears and responds to their supplications. After they tried in vain to evoke a response from their alleged deity, Eliyahu prayed to God, who sent a heavenly fire to consume the sacrifice he had offered on an altar especially constructed for this purpose. Eliyahu thereupon killed the prophets, and then rain began to fall, ending a very long and devastating drought which Eliyahu had decreed.
After this event, which appeared at the time to decisively end Eliyahu’s fierce struggle against the pagan worship in the kingdom, the princess, Izevel, sent her servants to kill Eliyahu. He was forced to flee, and he traveled, interestingly enough, to Sinai (19:8). God asked Eliyahu why he had come there, and he replied, “I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant; they destroyed Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword, and only I remain, alone. Now they seek to take my life” (19:10). God responded by issuing to Eliyahu a number of instructions, one of which was to appoint Elisha as a prophet in his stead. Rashi explains, “I do not want your prophecy, because you prosecute against My children.” A prophet’s role is not only to communicate God’s message to the people, but also to plead to God on their behalf. Eliyahu was “deposed” from his position as prophet of the Northern Kingdom because he “prosecuted” against the people, complaining to God about their disloyalty, rather than pleading their case before Him and trying to effect a change.
Later in this chapter (verse 19), we read that when Eliyahu came to Elisha, he found Elisha plowing with twelve pairs of oxen. Elisha left his work to serve Eliyahu, and he later assumed his place as the main prophet of Israel.
Why is it significant that Elisha was plowing at this time? Why was this detail deemed important enough to be mentioned by the text?
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Mussar Ha-nevi’im, suggested that the act of plowing a field in preparation for sowing symbolizes Eliyahu’s mistake, for which he was considered unworthy to continue serving as prophet. Just as a field cannot be planted without the proper advanced preparation, similarly, people’s hearts and conduct cannot be changed immediately. Personal change, like agriculture, requires a long, complex process. The “earth” within people’s hearts must first be “plowed” for them to become receptive to lofty ideas. Eliyahu despaired because even the great miracles he performed – preventing rain for three years, and bringing a heavenly fire to consume his sacrifice – did not have the desired effect of impacting the people and convincing them to abandon the worship of Ba’al. God’s response was to show Eliyahu his successor plowing a field. Benei Yisrael at that time were not ready for the “seeds” of religious truth that Eliyahu was trying to plant within their hearts. A long process was needed whereby the people would gradually outgrow their emotional dependence on Ba’al and reach the point where they would be open to change. Indeed, Elisha did not openly confront the pagans of Israel as Eliyahu did. The miracles he performed, by and large, were to help people in need, and this work gradually made an impact upon the kingdom.
Accordingly, God here was teaching Eliyahu – and us – a vital educational message, instructing that change and growth is a long, slow and gradual process. We cannot expect our children, our students or ourselves to absorb the “seeds” of knowledge and refined character until the “earth” is ready. The educational process requires laying the foundations for future knowledge and growth, without which the “seeds” will be unable to produce the “fruits” of knowledge and religious devotion that we desire.