Can Elijah Reconcile Fathers and Sons?
The third chapter of Malachi, read as the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, describes the great, awesome day of God being epitomized by reconciliation of fathers and sons:
כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם
24 And he [Elijah] shall return the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers;
Standing on the other side of the mechitzah as my son become a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Hagadol a few years ago, I found myself at a remove, a spectator beholding the transmission of a tradition between the men of this congregation, between fathers and sons. Watching that ceremony of seemingly seamless patriarchal transmission, compelled me, if against my will, to look more closely at the specific, male-centered theme being addressed at the end of Malachi’s prophecy. And not just in Malachi, but Tanakh writ large. It seems, our textual tradition—and here we share something with Western Literature writ large—has a lot of trouble with Fathers and Sons.
The Troubled Father-Son Relationship
The Mother-Son vs. Father-Son Relationship: Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac
The tradition, as it turns out, has little trouble with mothers and sons, a relationship that it repeatedly depicts as stable, abiding, and uninterrupted. For example, in Genesis 24:67, when Isaac marries Rebecca, he brings her into his mother’s tent, and is comforted in his marriage over the loss of his mother Sarah.
All this stands in stark contrast to Isaac’s relationship with his father after the incident of the Akedah, as depicted at the end of Genesis 22. When Abraham and Isaac initially set out on their journey to Moriah, they are described as walking yachdav– together. But after Abraham bound his son on an altar and almost slaughtered him to demonstrate his love for God, Abraham is depicted as walking yachdav with ne’arav (his servants, a telling rhyme) but not with Isaac.
Bad Father-Son Relationships in the Bible
The Bible is filled with examples of troubled relationships between fathers and sons:
- While Noah is drunk, one of his sons leaves him naked on the floor (Gen 9:21-23).
- Isaac chooses Esau over Jacob, and Jacob (with the encouragement of his mother) tricks him in return (Gen 27). When our forefathers love a son, they often do so at the expense of others sons, which fosters resentment and even violence.
- Jacob prefers Joseph, and his other sons trick both of them, such that Joseph spends years in bondage and Jacob spends decades assuming that his beloved son is dead (Gen 37). By the time Jacob reunites with Joseph, he is a broken man, one who describes the days of his life to Pharaoh as short and bitter (Gen 47:9).
- Reuben strikes up a relationship with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (Gen 35:22).
- We learn next to nothing about Moses’ sons, but from the little we do hear, we learn that he neglected to circumcise one of them (Exod 4:24-26) and that he abandoned both of them, causing his father-in-law to make a trip to Sinai to bring Moses his family back (Exod 18:2-5).
- Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu are consumed by a heavenly fire, and in response to their death, Aaron falls strangely silent (Lev 10:3).
- When Eli the priest hears about the death of his sons and the loss of the ark, it is the latter that makes him fall back on his chair and break his neck (I Sam 4:17-18).
- King David has a famously tragic and bellicose relationship with his son, Absalom—whose name ironically means “father of peace,” but who dedicates himself to waging war against his father David and proclaiming himself king in his father’s stead (II Sam 15-19). David eventually defeats Absalom and dramatically mourns his passing, which occurs in a grisly fashion, with Absalom’s head “caught up” by the branches of a terebinth tree (II Samuel 18:9).
Despite the emphasis on the problematic aspects of father-son relationships, Jewish tradition offers us a theological metaphor of God as father and the people as God’s sons. The imagery in Malachi fits within this tension. What better metaphor to imagine an overturning of the world order than to imagine fathers and sons finally reconciling!
Maimonides Use of Malachi in His Description of Messianic Times
Quoting Malachi 3:24 as a prooftext, Maimonides teaches in Hilkhot Melachim (Laws of Kings) 12:2:
ייראה מפשוטן של דברי הנביאים, שבתחילת ימות המשיח תהיה מלחמת גוג ומגוג; ושקודם מלחמת גוג ומגוג, יעמוד נביא לישראל ליישר ישראל ולהכין ליבם: שנאמר “הנה אנוכי שולח לכם, את אלייה הנביא” (מלאכי ג,כג). ואינו בא לא לטמא הטהור, ולא לטהר הטמא, ולא לפסול אנשים שהם בחזקת כשרות, ולא להכשיר מי שהוחזקו פסולין; אלא לשום שלום בעולם, שנאמר “והשיב לב אבות על בנים” (מלאכי ג,כד).
It seems from the simple understanding of the prophets that the Messianic age will begin with the war of Gog and Magog, and that before the war of Gog and Magog, a prophet will arise in Israel to correct the Israelites and prepare their hearts, as it says, “behold I am sending you Elijah the prophet” (Mal 3:23). He will not come to declare the pure impure or to declare the impure pure, nor will he declare people with a presumption of legitimacy to be illegitimate or to declare the presumed illegitimate to be legitimate. Rather, he will bring peace to the world, as it says, “and he shall return the heart of the fathers to the sons” (Mal 3:24).
This, in and of itself, our tradition teaches, is messianic and miraculous, and not so easy to attain.
Elijah: A Role Model Father Figure?
That Malachi designates Elijah the Prophet as the harbinger of this reconciliation proves particularly perplexing. It is true that at the end of his life, when Elijah is carried off to the heavens in a chariot of fire, his disciple Elisha designates him as a father figure, crying out: אָבִי אָבִי רֶכֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפָרָשָׁיו (My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!) (II Kings 2:12). Elisha claims Elijah as his spiritual father and inherits his prophetic mantle, but Elijah is a harsh father.
When Elisha first meets him and wishes to follow him, he requests the opportunity to kiss his mother and father goodbye, which Elijah refuses him (I Kings 19:19-21); Elijah seems to be more interested in breaking the natural father-son relationship, replacing it with a relationship between the prophet and his disciple. If Elijah is a father figure, he is one who seems to stand, inexorably, for the father-son relationship torn asunder. His chariots of fire “death” in front of Elisha, which “parted them both asunder” only underscores the fact of Eljah’s abidingly schismatic ways.
Elisha’s ensuing behavior suggests that he has inherited from Elijah a disturbingly punitive paternal/prophetic model: when a group of children taunt Elisha for his baldness, he curses them and two she-bears maul forty-two of these children to bits (II Kings 2:23-24).
Cut off from the People
Indeed, Elisha learns these ways well from his spiritual father/master, as Elijah’s relation with the people is marked throughout by furious dissent, resulting in a recurrent need to flee and live at a remove from civilization. No sooner do we meet Elijah in I Kings 17, he is forced, after announcing a punitive drought, to flee Ahab and the people to Nachal Kerit, a place whose very name, evocative of the Pentateuchal punishment of Karet, bespeaks a condition of being cut off. There at Nahal Kerit, Elijah is left to drink of the brook and be fed by the ravens, a carrion bird designated by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss as a mediator between life and death. While miraculous, Elijah’s means of sustenance at Nahal Kerit is a dubious honor that consigns him to a liminal netherworld and prevents involvement in the day-to-day workings of the people he should be influencing.
This liminal existence recurs. In the aftermath of Elijah’s upstaging and subsequent slaughter of the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel (II Kings 18:19-40), Elijah once again flees to the wilderness, this time to Mt. Horeb, where God tries to teach Elijah to have more sympathy for the people endeavors to show Elijah that the divine spirit is to be found neither in thunder nor in loud noises nor in grand miraculous acts but rather in the “kol demamah dakah” – the still small voice.
But Elijah remains impervious to this lesson, reprising verbatim his initial complaint to God from I Kings 19:10:
מלכים א יט:יד וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַי-הֹוָ֣ה׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ:
I Kings 19:14 I have been very jealous for the LORD the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Elijah will not listen, change, or even modulate for a moment his fiery rhetorical tone, even when schooled by God to behave otherwise.
What Elijah Is Malachi Imagining?
To imagine Elijah as the harbinger of the reconciliation of the father-son relationship, both on a human and theological level, as Malachi does, is to imagine another Elijah entirely, one closer to his rabbinic guise—a “legal authority, a teacher of the wise, and a helper of those in crisis—than what we see in the biblical text. Elijah as we meet him in I and II Kings fits the bill as herald of בּוֹא יוֹם ה’ הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא, the coming of “the great and terrible day of the LORD: (Malachi 3:23). He also fits the very last threatening words of the prophecy: פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם, “lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction” (Malachi 324). That same Elijah hardly seems relevant to the intervening verse that speaks of the turning of the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, unless one construes him as representing an redemptive extreme: the end of days will see even Elijah making peace.
Yehudah Amichai’s Exploration of the Tense Father-Son Relationship
Yehudah Amichai addresses the dissonance between the loving and the frightening, immovable father, in a beautiful poem about his own mild-mannered, loving father, included in his last book of poems, פתוח סגור פתוח. Following I Kings 19, which casts Elijah in the Mosaic model by alluding explicitly to the giving of the Torah at Horeb, Amichai brings together references to Moses’ and Elijah’s wilderness theophanies, all for the sake of exploring the implications of the father-son relationship, both in human and theological terms:
אבי היה אלוהים ולא ידע.
My father was God and didn’t know.
הוא נתן לי את עשרת הדברות ולא ברעם ולא בזעם, ולא באש ולא בענן.
He gave me the ten commandments not in thunder nor in fury, not in fire nor in cloud.
אלא ברכות ובאהבה. והוסיף ליטופים והוסיף מילים טובות.
Rather in softness and love. And he added caresses and added good words.
והוסיף "אנא" והוסיף "בבקשה."
And added “Please” and added “You’re welcome.”
וזימר זכור ושמור בניגון אחד והתחנן ובכה בשקט בין דיבר לדיבר.
And hummed you shall remember and you shall observe in a single tune and pleaded and quietly wept between commandments.
לא תשא שם אלוהיך לשוא, לא תשא, לא לשוא.
Do not take the name of your God in vain, Do not take, not in vain.
אנא, אל תענה ברעך עד שקר.
Please, do not bear false testimony against your neighbor
וחיבק אותי חזק ולחש באזני, לא תגנוב, לא תנאף, לא תרצח.
And he hugged me and whispered in my ear, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder.
ושם את כפות ידיו הפתוחות על ראשי בברכת יום כיפור.
And placed his open palms on my head for the Yom Kippur blessing.
כבד, אהב, למען יאריכון ימיך על פני האדמה.
Honor, love, so that your days shall be lengthened on the face of the land
וקול אבי לבן כמו שער ראשו.
And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
אחר כך הפנה את פניו אלי בפעם האחרונה כמו ביום שבו מת בזרועותי.
Afterward he turned his face toward me that last time as on the day when he died in my arms.
ואמר: אני רוצה להוסיף שנים לעשרת הדיברות:
And he said: I want to add two more to the Ten Commandments:
הדיבר האחד-עשר, "לא תשתנה"
The eleventh commandment, “Do not change.”
והדיבר השנים-עשר, "השתנה תשתנה."
And the twelfth commandment, “Surely you shall change.”
כך אמר אבי ופנה ממני והלך ונעלם במרחקיו המוזרים.
That’s what my father said and then turned from me and went and disappeared into his strange distance.
Appropriately, Amichai looks to God, not to Elijah, as a paternal role-model, recalling God’s efforts in I Kings 19 to teach Elijah the parenting as well as the theological lesson of the “still small voice.” As a giver of dibrot, “sayings,” Amichai’s father / God transmits h/His message not in thunder, or fury, not in fire and cloud, but in the tender, quiet mode of blessing and love.
Rather than turning away from his child in jealous fury, Amichai’s F/father turns toward h/His son and even dies in his arms, even as h/He continues to live on his imagination and sensibility. And though in death, h/He departs like Elijah to strange distances, neither chariots nor fire spirit him away from h/His son. He simply turns and walks.
Yehudah Amichai’s Father’s Two Commandments and the Role of Fathers and Sons
Before departing, h/He adds new “sayings” or commandments that bespeak the desire both for permanence and abiding values—don’t change—as well as awareness of the necessity of transformation—you shall surely change. The role of a son is to remain loyal as well as to mature, develop. Acknowledging the fundamental need for change is a precondition for the reconciliation of Fathers and Sons, a redemptive condition that Maimonides, following Malachi calls for, but fails ultimately to see in his own day.
Amichai’s poem picks up this yearning where the prophets leave off and tries to give it an everyday familial face—kindly rather than terrible, but nevertheless, the stuff of a new revelation.
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Prof. Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and her M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her B.A. from Stern College (YU). She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.
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