Elijah’s Message to Us

For our Sages, no biblical figure symbolizes the overarching hope of Torah—that one day we human beings will create on this earth a just, caring and compassionate society—more than the prophet Elijah.

According to Jewish tradition, as we celebrate every week during Havdalah, our brief ceremony to bid goodbye to the Sabbath, we express a hope that has sustained us for 2500 years.

Since the time of the prophet Malachi in the fifth pre-Christian century, we have looked to Elijah as the symbol of the time when the world will be the just, caring and compassionate place that God has wanted us to make it since the dawn of creation.

As great as he was, though, even Elijah could sometimes not hear the voice of God. Like so many Elijah experienced deep despair!

Elijah had faith in God his whole life! But he had completely burned out. His strength, his zeal and his enthusiasm had all vanished. When we find him at Mt. Horeb (I Kings 19:10), he was ready to give up.

We marvel that he had sunk so low! And we ask:

Can this be the same Elijah who had once championed the Eternal One so boldly?

  • Is this the same Elijah who chastised King Ahab for confiscating Naboth’s vineyard?
  • Is this the same Elijah who stared down Queen Jezebel when she pronounced a death sentence upon him?
  • And is this the same Elijah who challenged the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, where he said to the idol worshippers, “You set up an altar to your idol god and set a bull upon it, and I will set a bull on an altar to the One true God. But let neither of us light a fire under the bull. Let us see which God consumes the offering without benefit of fire!

The prophets of Baal went first. They prayed, they sang, and they gashed themselves, as was their custom. But nothing happened. Finally the prophets of Baal gave up!

Then Elijah poured buckets and buckets of water over the bull onto the altar, and the water even overflowed the trench below the altar. Then he cried out:

Anne Adonai Aneni  ענני ה׳ ענני

“Answer me, O Lord, Answer me!” And poof! The entire offering, the altar and even the trench below went up in smoke. And at that spectacle all those gathered on the mountain to witness the challenge cried out the words:

ה׳ הוא האלהים Adonai hu Ha-Elohim

“The Eternal One alone is God!!! (I Kings 18:19-39)”

Yes, that dramatic event was a great moment. But as often the case with big dramatic moments in our lives, its glow soon dimmed!

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel still sought to kill Elijah, and he was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. To try to regain his strength he journeyed forty days and forty nights to the site where God revealed Torah to our people, to Mount Sinai.

But there Elijah sunk even deeper into despair. He wanted another dramatic assurance of God’s support for him, but this time it did not come.

He listened and heard a fierce howling wind, and then there was an earthquake and then a raging fire. But God was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. Elijah had to listen very closely and then at last God’s voice came to him in

קול דממה דקה    Kol d’mama daka

A still small voice.” (I Kings 19:8-12)

Elijah’s experience speaks directly to each of us. We yearn to hear God’s voice just as the prophet did. But we shall listen in vain if we always expect to hear it in claps of loud thunder, crackling lightning or in gale force winds!

The first word of Judaism’s most important prayer is

שמע  Shema


Why, Our Sages ask, did God give us two ears but only one mouth? So that we should listen twice as much as we speak.

The voice will not inspire most of us to cure cancer or end war in the world although we pray for the success of those who try. But do we hear that voice when it urges us to do simple things like stop to assist a person who needs help?

Most of us do not.

I was not with her the day Vickie was walking alone on Kufurstendam in Berlin. She turned her ankle on an uneven stone and screamed as she fell to the ground.  Several people walked by, but only one stopped to help her up.

These are two examples from my life when I am glad that I listened to the voice speaking to me:

One summer night when I was twelve I could not sleep. I looked out the window and saw a magnificent full moon seeming to move across the sky. At times, the moon shone brightly. At times it appeared to hide—partially or completely—behind clouds. But each time the clouds hid it, the moon re-emerged to shine brightly once again.

And it was as if God spoke very softly to me and said:

”Such is life, Stephen. There will be moments of bright joy and moments of dark sadness. But watch the moon. It keeps going, and because it does, it eventually moves from darkness to light once again! So keep going! Do not give up, and do your best no matter what obstacles life puts in your path!”

No teacher ever taught me a more valuable lesson!

When I was fifteen, I heard the voice again.

It was a snowy winter night, and I was walking to our synagogue to participate in our annual service for the Festival of Chanukah. I had stepped into a gift shop to buy a present for my girlfriend when a little girl of about ten walked into the store. She was dressed very poorly and her tattered cloak was not sufficient to keep her warm in the winter chill.

“I want to buy a Christmas present for my mother,” she said to the shopkeeper, “but I don’t have very much money.”

The storekeeper showed her a few inexpensive items, and when she saw a nice bracelet, her eyes lit up! But they immediately dimmed when she counted her money and realized that she did not have enough to buy it.

To this day, I believe, the still small voice guided me into that store, so that I could make up the difference between the amount of money that she had and the amount that she needed to buy her mother that present.

Because Elijah finally heard the still small voice, he found the courage to continue his mission. Because Elijah listened to the still small voice Jews to this day—2500 years later—look to him as the symbol of the glorious era that will bring peace and harmony to the entire world.

People are unlikely to remember us in 2500 years as we do Elijah, but if we listen for and heed the still small voice, we can–in small but very real ways—-make a better world.

Out tradition (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 22a and other places) teaches that to help a single person is to save the entire world!

If we listen, all of us can hear the “still small voice” and use our talents to perform small acts that make a better world, and that, I believe, is what God wants each of us to do.




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