Haftarah I Kings 19
Elijah, the desert and the Voice of Soundless Silence
Many years ago now I used to go to Israel each summer and work on archaeological excavations. One of my strongest memories of that time is of one early – very early – morning at Tel Sheva, just outside what was then the small town of Be’ersheba.
I was working for Professor Yochanan Aharoni z.l., as a site supervisor (that is, I was in charge of a group of about ten volunteers excavating a small section of the site). As a ‘privileged’ member of staff I had a bed in a room with three other women in a row of unbearable concrete huts whose walls soaked up the desert heat during the day and gave it back to us with interest at night. The interest was cockroaches. Some nights I got up, dressed and went up on the tel to catch the night breeze that rolled in from the desert. Perched on a wall at the very top of the ancient town it was always pleasant to sit and watch the night fade.
Until one night, when something different happened and I got very frightened. As day dawned I saw what I thought was a dust devil approaching the tel. We’d all seen them before, they spun up the dust as they roiled along, moving fast across the desert floor, letting out whirling strings of dust as they passed on. But this looked different – larger and whiter and blotting out everything in its path. And then it was on the camp below, which promptly disappeared, and then it was rising up the slopes and across the tel, covering me and everything around me. It felt horrible: silent and shroudlike. It even had a musty, dusty smell. I could see nothing at all and lost all sense of where I was. The air was quite still and moistly warm. I could see nothing and hear nothing and I could have been the last person left alive on earth, for all I could prove to the contrary. Logical reasoning that of course there were people not a quarter of a mile away just didn’t help – there was just me and the mist. I was really scared. Nothing I had ever learned was going to help me and I didn’t know the rules and I had lost contact with my life, myself really. So I prayed that it would pass – and of course it did. In time.
I suddenly realized what it must have been like for our people in biblical days: Abraham coming to the desert for the first time when he’d always lived in countries where there were lots of people around. Or like Joseph when his brothers put him in a pit in the wilderness. Or, most of all, the Israelites, after they crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in trackless desert. There they were, out in the desert, but didn’t know the rules. They, too, turned to God.
Elijah in the desert of Sinai must have felt physical exhaustion and total mental fatigue – lost, thirsty, frightened and absolutely alone. He had no reference points to link him to his life. Plus he believed Jezebel’s heavies were tracking him down to kill him because, on Mt Carmel, he had shown the people just what rubbish the Canaanite gods were and how powerful the God of Israel is. On his flight from Jezebel he even said he wanted to die (I Kings 19:4). At last he finds a cave on Mt Horeb and takes refuge in it. Suddenly God asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he spouts something about being zealous for God, and all the rest of Israel being idolaters, and he’s alone and they’re out to get him – but really he’s lost all contact with himself. He doesn’t seem all that bothered by the wind and earthquake and the fire that follows, all sent by heaven to … what? Frighten him? He didn’t need help: like all of us he could frighten himself in the privacy of his own mind. But then he hears a soft Voice in a moment of silence, so he drags himself out of his cave to hear God’s words better and he wraps his head in his cloak, because he knows he’ll die if he sees God – no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). Not even Moses. But God repeats the question and Elijah repeats his answer.
This feels to me – perhaps I am reading too much of myself in it: but somehow I suspect there will be some of you who understand this – it feels like a fairly common human experience. It’s the trough after the peak. The exhaustion, or the lack of reference points in a completely new situation, or disillusion and depression. We all feel these things at our lowest points. We’re stuck, we can’t do this, there’s nowhere to turn.
But there is, isn’t there? Some people call it inner reserves, strength of character, bloody-mindedness. I call it listening. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ says the Psalmist (Ps.46:11). God is where that inner strength comes from. Whether we know it or not: whether we acknowledge God’s presence or not in the soundless silence – well, that’s what it is for me anyway. It’s the calm, inner voice that says to you ‘go on, you know you can’. And then, quite suddenly, you can.
I often find that quiet Voice when I’m driving alone in the car, or walking the dog in the park. Elijah found it in his cave, though he did not recogmize it at once. But each of us can find our place and time when we can listen and hear. The answer is there, if we really listen, if we don’t kid ourselves that what we think we want is what we really want. Forget about wealth and status; forget about the things that have gone wrong for you, just be still in that space and listen. The white cloud will dissipate, the upheaval in your mind will quieten and the answer will come.
In the middle of the whirlwind and the earthquake and the fire Elijah was alone in his cave. And when he came out he may not have made a direct decision, but his subconscious had. Did you notice that he wrapped his head in his cloak so he wouldn’t die? Even though he had already said to God that he wanted to end it all. God had spoken suddenly, quietly, to him in a split second of revelation and his subconscious understood the path in front of him, even if it had not yet penetrated his conscious mind. Because when God asked him again why he was there, he didn’t openly have a different answer from the first time. God knew there was something different about him – he had, after all omitted to commit suicide. That’s why we have to listen carefully and reflect on what comes to us – poor Elijah did not really have enough time for himself before he was sent off again.
And Elijah was a prophet who still had a lot to do – to upbraid Ahab and foretell death for him and for Jezebel for murdering Naboth and stealing his vineyard: and then he had to prophecy the death of Ahaziah, Ahab’s successor. And of course he also had to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, but that’s another story.
Roberta Harris Eckstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.