The Miracle Worker
A haftorah of unlikely occurrences and blind faith
When I first arrived in New York, a decade ago last month, a friend took me to see his favorite team play ball. I was about to witness, he promised, a towering sports franchise, a baseball dynasty both majestic and magical. I was in, he said, for years of proud moments. I was new in town and had no way of knowing he was being facetious: the team he was talking about was the New York Mets.
By the time I realized what was what, it was too late. I had become a fan. With remarkably few exceptions, I approached each April with hope springing eternal, dreaming of wild cards and pennants and all the world’s glories. Come October, I would cower, morose and defeated, and watch some other team bathe in ticker tape and champagne. By now, heartbreak has become a habit.
Watching the World Series unfold this week and last, and witnessing the inevitable march to greatness of my team’s crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, I sped through the Seven Stages of Met fanhood, experiencing first shame, then anger, and, finally, acceptance. I was about to turn off the TV. I didn’t want to see A-Rod, Jeter, Damon, and the other pin-striped primadonnas celebrate their 27th championship. And then came game five, and Chase Utley’s homeruns, and the Philadelphia Phillies, trailing 3-1 and on the verge of extinction, won the game and looked, for a split second, as if they might unseat the Yankees and claim victory.
My mind raced. I imagined a historic upset. I fantasized about the Yankees, standing, stunned, in their lavish new stadium, forced to watch their rivals rejoice. I thought about calling every Yankees fan I know and gloating until I could gloat no more. But nothing of the sort happened: game six arrived, the Yankees delivered, the title was won. Miracles don’t happen to Mets fans, with one or two notable exceptions.
They do, however, abound in this week’s haftorah, which recounts the story of Elisha, the disciple of the great prophet Elijah, and a woman who’s exceedingly kind to him. She furnishes a room in her house for the holy man, and generously hosts him every time he comes by her part of town. Seeking to repay the favor, Elisha notices that the woman is without children, and that her husband is elderly. Familiar with the story of the aged Sarah giving birth to Isaac—recounted in this week’s parasha—Elisha promises the woman a son. Just like her ancient matriarch, she doubts the veracity of the prophecy, and, again like Sarah, is shocked when a son eventually materializes.
But the boy soon falls ill, and, unlike Isaac and his intervening angel, no divine entity saves the child from dying. Incensed, the woman goes to see Elisha; grabbing his feet, she begins to moan. “Did I desire a son of my Lord?” she cries. “Did I not say: do not deceive me?” Moved, Elisha gives his staff to Gehazi, his faithful assistant, and sends the apprentice back to the woman’s home to revive the boy. Gehazi tries and fails, and Elisha himself arrives, praying to the Lord and breathing life into the dead child.
It’s the Jewish take on of the story of Lazarus, the man who Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, brought back from the dead. But Elisha couldn’t by anymore different from the Nazarene if he tried. When Jesus learns of Lazarus’s death, we’re treated to what is perhaps theology’s best-known show of emotion: “Jesus wept.” Elisha, on his end, remains unmoved. Jesus performs his miracle in public; the small crowd gathered outside of Lazarus’s tomb all become instant believers in his teachings. Elisha works alone, in silence, behind closed doors. Even his assistant isn’t allowed in the room.
These are no minor differences. Watching Christ revive his man, we’re supposed to believe in his power to reverse the natural order. He’s bigger than the universe, and he happily proves it. If we take the story on faith, the world becomes, quite literally, a magical kingdom, a heady realm in which God, or His son, has the power to condemn and redeem us all at will. If we believe, in other words, all we have to do is trust Jesus as our own personal savior, and pray that when the time comes, he’ll be there for us as well, and carry us, too, alive and kicking, out of our tombs and back into the light.
Elisha puts forth a very different vision. Bringing back the dead, he realizes, is an act so incongruous with everything we know the world to be that no one but the inspirited man of God should be allowed to see it happen. Elisha doesn’t want us to believe in him. He does his best to downplay his own powers, sending his servant first and personally intervening only as a last resort. He doesn’t want people to mistake him, a mere servant of God, for the savior himself. Only God has the power to rewrite life’s fundamental rules—to part the waters, say, or make a dead boy breathe again. But God, alas, is strange to us mortals. By the nature of our being, we possess neither the intellect nor the insight to know the Lord’s ways. Therefore, Elisha insists, it’s prudent not to spend too much time waiting for miracles to happen; better focus on our own powers, our own skills, our own agency instead. Put simply, Elisha is telling us this: miracles don’t happen, unless they do. And when they do happen, don’t expect them to happen again.
These are words any Mets fans instinctively understands. This week, for a brief moment, I suspected a minor miracle might occur, that the God of baseball may see it fit to punish the wicked Yankees, that us bitter and damned denizens of Citi Field may yet enjoy a brief moment of spiteful mirth. It didn’t happen. It rarely does.
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