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Q&A: Parashat Pin’has and the Haftara

July 18, 2014

Question: What is a reiach nichoach, the savory smell made by the korbanos? What does it mean that God smells things?

Answer: This is an anthropomorphic expression that Onkelos rendered as “l’ithqabbala b’ra’awa,” Aramaic for the Hebrew “mithqabbel b’ratzon” or accepted with favor, or as Rashi brings from the Talmud, God receives nahath ruah, satisfaction, (nachis in Yiddish) for having His will carried out as per His command, much like a human father, husband, or boss derives satisfaction from having others do as he wills. However, this explanation is still too anthropomorphic, as God is not a petty human seeking others to obey Him. Rather, this, like prayer, is supposed to be a reflexive action. With regards to the sacrificial service, the main purpose is to rein in man’s tendency to want to do things his own way. The goal of the numerous restrictions with regards to the sacrifices is developing restraint. When one offers a sacrifice as per the Torah’s prescription, he develops the restraint necessary to improve his character, and this is what the sages refer to when they say that God receives satisfaction from the sacrifice.

Question: What was last week’s haftara about? I read it, but did not understand why Eliyahu Hanavi was told to go to Har Sinai, nor did I understand what happened there. Answer: The haftara you are referring to is from I Kings 19. The story picks up a few verses after the incident we read about for the haftara of Ki Thissa, when Elijah bested the priests/prophets of the Baal at Mount Carmel by bringing down a heavenly fire to consume his offering. The surprising message of this haftara is that God, so to speak, gave Elijah rebuke: His message had to be delivered in a more pleasant manner, and he should not speak accusingly of God’s people before God. Both of these messages were delivered to him at Mt. Sinai, because it was there that Moses exemplified these two lessons. When the people had built the Golden Calf, Moses played two roles: he pleaded for God to forgive and have mercy, both immediately after the construction of the calf, and the subsequent and additional forty days on Mount Sinai. He acted like their defense attorney, yet he was vigilant in punishing the offenders and reprimanding the others when he descended form the mountain. Still, his words to the people were tempered with patience. When Elijah arrived at the cave on the mount, the same one that Moses had stayed in, and after undergoing the same forty-day fast that Moses had, the voice asked him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now, as you know, whenever the word of God asks the hearer a question, it is rhetorical, because of course God knows everything. Compare this with the questions God asked Adam, Cain, and Balaam, for instance. In all of those cases and others, the question was supposed to elicit a confession of sorts, and each time, the hearer responded as though trying to justify himself or deflect guilt. The same thing here. God wanted Elijah to say, “I have sinned, and have spoken disparagingly of Your people,” but instead he accused them:

‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.’

Then God tried to illustrate the lesson for him:

And He said: ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.’ And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

The Targum and the Sages understood this anthropomorphic description as referring to God’s word and not God Himself. That is, God’s word, the message from God, should not be delivered out of vengeance (the wind that smashes mountans and rocks), nor out of destructive excitement (the earthquake), nor with screaming and anger (the fire). Rather, it was to be delivered with pleasantness (the still small voice). Elijah was then given another chance to speak, and was asked the same rhetorical question: “Why are you here, Elijah?”, at which point he was supposed to change his tone and respond apologetically, but again he did not. He actually began to accuse the people again, the same accusation almost verbatim! It was at that point that God relieved Elijah of his prophetic duties:

And the LORD said unto him: ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you come, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Aram; and Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt you anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt you anoint to be prophet in your stead.

Because humanity, gentiles included, needed someone else’s approach to delivering God’s word, Elisha was chosen to replace Elijah. Note that even the first two tasks, the anointing of both Hazael and Jehu, were eventually carried out by Elisha or one of his students.

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