Unetaneh Tokef: Text, Interpretation & Meaning
Commentary On Unetaneh Tokef - The High Holiday’s Scariest Prayer
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Unetaneh Tokef Explained
At the center of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services is the passage "Unetaneh Tokef," literally, “let us speak of the awesomeness.” The powerful and dramatic prayer borrows imagery from the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel. A closer look at this biblical story sheds light on God's relationship with His people, a relationship of justice and mercy. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he helps us understand the prayer of "Unetaneh Tokef" in a deeper way.
So today we are going to take a look at one of the roots of one of the centerpieces of the Yom Kippur davening, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah davening. And it's one of the most familiar parts of the machzor. When ArtScroll published its machzor and put out ads for it, the page they opened to was this one, I think. In addition to Kol Nidrei, the other page they opened to was Unetaneh Tokef.
The High Holidays' Scariest Prayer: Interpreting Unetaneh Tokef
It's a famous piyut, you all know the story behind it, the Crusader story behind it, Rav Amnon of Mainz, that is the story which we are not going to talk about today. So when I talk about the roots of Unetaneh Tokef, I am not talking about that story.
I am actually talking about something that goes back before that, because if you look at the poem itself, at the piyut itself, the piyut borrows imagery. The central part of the piyut borrows imagery from the story of Tanach, and I would like to use that story in Tanach to kind of shed light on, kind of a new look on, Unetaneh Tokef.
So let me give you some questions to sort of ponder. This is one of those talks that leaves you with more questions than answers, but hopefully the questions will be enlightening as well.
The centerpiece of Unetaneh Tokef is a very scary prayer, it's probably one of the scariest parts of the Yom Kippur davening, we talk in vivid terms about people passing before God, and God deciding what their fate will be, for better or for worse, as it were.
And there is this phrase, I don't have it in front of me, but you will correct me, u'malachim yechafezun, v'chil ur'ada yochezun v'amru hineh yom hadin [and the angels scurry, and panic and trembling seize them, and they say, “Here is the Day of Judgement!”] And the moment that invites that sort of extreme reaction on the part of the angels, that they tremble before God, is this moment where v'kol dimamah dakah yishama, "a still small voice goes out” and, malachim yechafezun, "the angels are struck by fear."
We’re given to understand that somehow that still small voice is somehow revelatory, is a revelation, its epitome is God, hakadosh baruch hu. And what I want to do with you today is to explore the nature of that still small voice, because that small voice comes from somewhere, it comes from Sefer Melachim [The Book of Kings], it’s borrowed from Sefer Melachim.
Connections to the Text of Unetaneh Tokef in the Bible
So what we are going to do today is undertake an exploration of the story involving Elijah the prophet and the still small voice; we're going to look at the story of the still small voice.
It's a fascinating, sort of strange story, we are going to chart some of the fascinating elements of it and see what we make of it. And then when we are done, maybe come back and think about what its implications for Unetaneh Tokef are.
So here is the story, if you go home and you want to do this one your own, you could find this in Melachim 19, Kings 19. And the setting for the story is: this is right after what you might argue is the dramatic climax of Elijah's prophetic career, the great game show, as it were, on top of Har HaKarmel [Mt. Carmel]; it’s the closest thing to a game show in the Tanach that you can imagine.
It's where Elijah issues a challenge to finally decide who is the true God: Baal, or God himself. Ad mata atem poschim al shtei seifim – we'll see how long will you straddle? Straddle two sides of the fence, two sides of the sword.
And he invites the prophets of Baal for this showdown, and you all know the story – he built two altars, and the prophets of Baal are visiting team so they get to go first. And they call out to their God to answer them, and of course, nothing happens. Elijah taunts them, maybe he’s sleeping, you have to wake him up? And still nothing happens. And finally, Elijah called out to God, after drenching his offering just to make it fair, the idea is that the winner will have fire come down from heaven and consume the offering.
And indeed, fire comes down from heaven, consumes the wet offering, and everyone says, Hashem hu haElokim, Hashem hu haElokim, something we also say today in Yom Kippur, when we end the Yom Kippur davening [prayer]. And it seems like the great climax, much as Hashem hu Elokim is the great climax of our davening on Yom Kippur; it seems like the story is over. And then it rains. Elijah had decreed that there would be no rain for three years.
It always bothers me, by the way, why that was the case? Why did Elijah decree there would be no rain? Because it seems like such a mean thing to do, collective punishment, what's he doing, punishing all the people because some people are worshiping Baal? It doesn't seem like a very nice thing.
But then, actually, I was in Israel, I recommend that you do this: go the Israeli Museum, go to Room 5 in the archeology section of the Israel Museum, and you’ll find a fascinating thing, it will actually shed light on this story. Room 5 is Biblical Archeology around the times of King; you can see a lot of interesting things, you can actually see the palace gates from Chatzor, from Ahab’s palace, the king that lived at the time of Elijah. You could find weight and measures, so it makes a lot of sense. Esrim gerah ha’shekel; you can actually see a gerah weight and you can a shekel weight, you can see that the gerah is about 1/20 the size of a shekel; it's really very fascinating. You can see, when Abraham talks about arbah meah shekel kesef, you can get a sense of what that shekel really was.
One of the things that you see in Room 5 of the Israel Museum, you see little statuettes of Baal that were worshiped at the time, and his wife, a woman by the name of Asherah, actually, when the Torah talks about "don't worship the Asherah,” Asherah would be the wife of Baal.
In ancient Canaanite religion, you know what god Baal was, Baal was actually the storm God. So it makes a lot of sense what Elijah was doing. What Elijah was saying was, you think that Baal controls the rain, Baal controls the storms, Baal doesn't control the storm!; I'm the prophet of God, God controls the storms. That was really the idea. That was only once the people gave up the worship of Baal, that's when the rain came, at the very end of the story.
Anyway, this seems to be the great vindication of Elijah as a prophet and it's almost like, if Sefer Melachim ended here, you wouldn't be upset. You would think "Ah! The story has ended, everything is great." However, I don't know if you have ever read a book or a novel; sometimes you have a very successful author, they write a great book, the book ends when the good guy wins. And yet, they want to write a sequel because the first book was so good. So how are you going to write a sequel when the good guys won, you're stuck. So what do you have to do? You start the sequel with "Well, that wasn't really the whole story, the good guys won the battle, but there was a larger war, they were really behind in the war, here is the larger story,” and you kind of feel like something like that seems to be going on in the beginning of our new story of Melachim 19. Elijah's dramatic victory seems to just fade, and you meet Elijah, and he is on the lam, and he is on the run, he's down, and it looks almost as if the climax has never happened. And that's the setting for our story with kol demama dakah. So let's read over here and see what we make of this.
Vayaged Achav l'Izevel et kol-asher asah Eliyahu – "So Ahab, the wicked king, told his even wickeder wife Jezebel, kol-asher asah Eliyahu, everything that Elijah had done, et kol-asher harag et-kol-hanevi'im becharev – how he had killed all the prophets by the sword, vatishlach Jezebel malach el-Eliyahu lemor – "and so Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah telling him, koh yaasun Elokim v'koh yosifun.” In Tanach, what does it mean, koh yaasun Elokim v'koh yosifun? It’s the language of shvuah, that's how the people would take an oath, "Thus should God do and thus should he continue to do." But if you look at how Jezebel phrase the language, you will find something a little bit different than the way it normally is phrased in Tanach. It's not koh yaaseh Elokim v'koh yosif, but, it's plural koh yaasun Elokim v'koh yosifun. Why is that? Because who is Jezebel? She is a polytheist. She believes in many gods. So when she swears in the name of the god, it's not in the name of the one God, it's in the name of many gods. So she puts this in plural, "so shall the Gods do, and so will they continue to do," she is swearing by the gods. Ki-kaet machar asim et-nafshecha kenefesh ached mehem – "By tomorrow I will kill you, I will treat you the way you have treated the other prophets of Baal."
Now we have a series of very strange events. Va’yar va’yakam va’yelech el nafsho – Elijah sees, he gets up he goes," what does vayelech el-nafsho mean? "He goes to himself, maybe he runs for his life," although vayelech el-nafsho would not be exactly the way you said, 'you're running for your life.' It literally means that "you're running to your life,” or “you're running to yourself." Anyway, but va’yavo Be'er Sheva – "He comes to Be'er Sheva." Asher li’yehudah vayanach et-na'aro sham, seem to be details that's not important, va’yanach et-na'aro sham – "He leaves his lad behind there." First of all, we didn't even know he was travelling with a lad, the lad never shows up again in the story. It doesn't seem important that he left him behind, or had him there in the first place, so why do we even need to know this?
Anyway, it gets a little stranger. Vehu halach bamidbar derech yom – "He goes for a day's journey into the desert," vayavo yayeshev tachat rotem echad – "and he goes and he sits under a Rotom tree," vayishal et-nafsho lamut vayomer rav atah Hashem kach nafshi ki-lo-tov anochi me’avotai – "He say, God take my soul from me, I am no better than my forefathers." Vayishkav vayishan tachat rotem echad – " he falls asleep underneath this Rotom tree, and he is asleep," vehineh zeh malach nogea bo – " and then a malach comes," notice we had a malach earlier on also, but there the malach was a messenger, here the malach is an angel. So an angel come, nogea bo – "and touches him." Vayomer lo kum echol – " and the malach mysteriously says, wake up, it's time to eat."
Vayabet – "so he look up," v'hineh meraashtav ugat retzafim v'tzafachat mayim – “he arise, he goes, he looks up, and there is this big cake on the coal up above his head hanging on the tree," V'tzafachat mayim – " there is this canteen of water," vayochal vayesht - and he goes and he eats. And what happens next? Vayashav vayishkav – "and now he goes back to sleep." What is this? We've got a really tired Elijah. Why is he sleeping so much?
Anyway, so now he is asleep for a second time. Vayashav malach Hashem, the malach doesn't give up. So the malach goes , and a second time goes, vayiga bo vayomer kum echol "He say, you've got to get up and eat some more." Like what is this? Why are we hearing about all this? Elijah is tired, he gets up, eats a little bit, goes back to sleep, gets up , eat a little, what are we supposed to make of all of this?
Vayiga bo vayomer kum echol– "Go, get up and eat," ki rav mimcha haderech – " you have a long way to go yet." What do you mean, "You have a long way to go yet"? What does that mean? Vayakam vayochal vayishteh vayelech bekoach ha'achilah hahi arbaim yom v'arbaim laylah – "He gets up and he goes, and he goes for forty days and forty nights, ad har haElokim Chorev – we get to the mountain of God and Horeb. Vayavo-sham el-hamearah “and he comes to his cave there,” then he's going to have this epiphany where God is going to appear to him and he will hear a still small voice.
So, the first thing I want to do is try to analyze what we've just read, these strange events, try to make sense of what's happening with Elijah, kind of going off in the desert, falling asleep, angel trying to wake him up, angel not being so successful, eating a little bit, eating a little bit again, falling asleep; what exactly is happening? What are we supposed to make of all that and how does it contribute to our story?
How Does This Commentary Relate to Unetaneh Tokef?
Here is what we're going to do, we're going to go back and read these verses one more time. But as we read them one more time, we're going to play one of my favorite games, and yours, and it is called, 'Where have we heard these words before?' Basically, what the Torah is doing here is... well, let me give you a little bit of a background; I see some new faces in the crowd, here is the background to that little piece of methodology.
Imagine you are on a plane, you’re on a trip to Israel, and you meet my mythical friend that I call 'Joe on the plane’ and Joe had got these questions for you. Joe says, "I understand you Jews, you are the people of the book, do you believe the Bible is deep?" You say, "Yes, of course. I believe the Bible is very deep." Joe says, "I have a problem with that idea; the Bible is too short." You say, "What do you mean the Bible is too short? It's a very long Bible." He says, "No, you don't understand. All the stories in the Bible, they’re too short. These are supposed to be dramatic stories and tell me something very important, Adam and Eve in the garden, the Tower of Babel, the binding of Isaac; look at these stories. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is 12 verse long, the Tower of Babel is nine verses long, the Akeidah is 12 verses long. These are such deep stories. Imagine if the Encyclopedia Britannica was writing about one of these 50 years ago, do you think it would be 12 sentences long? It would be 50 columns long." What are you going to say in nine sentences? Even if I was a really bright guy, no matter how bright I am, how much depth can I pack into nine sentences that 3,000 years from now, millions of people around the world will think that this is such a deep document, what's so deep? What can you say in nine sentences? What would you answer Joe on the plane? Not such an easy question. What would you say to Joe on the plane? You would look for another seat, right? But, what if there were no other seats?
You would say "there is a lot of hidden meaning." But Joe says, "yes, I don't get that. What do you mean? Like, it's words on a page, so where is the hidden meaning? So then you might say, "well, that's what the commentaries are for. There is Rashi, and there is Sforno, you don't understand, there is the Rambam." So what would Joe say to that? Would Joe be impressed with that? Joe would not be impressed with that. He says, "Okay, fine. They can say whatever they want, but you're telling me the text is meaningful, where is the meaning of the text itself? It must be that there is a lot of hidden meaning, but where do that meaning come from? How do you get inner meaning in texts?"
The analogy I always give to this is: imagine you were very, very rich, and you are looking for a place to live in Manhattan and you decided that you wanted a 5,000 sq ft ranch house with a really nice backyard and you tell your real estate agent that money is no object, but you must have a beautiful 5,000 sq ft ranch house with an idyllic backyard, somewhere in Manhattan and between say E 60th and Fifth Ave, somewhere through the Midtown area, somewhere in there. So what's your real estate agent is going to say? "Well, it's not there." "But I'm telling you, I am willing to pay any amount of money!" It's still not there. For no amount of money is there a beautiful ranch with a beautiful backyard in Midtown. So your real estate agent might come back to you and say looks, "if you want five thousand square feet and money is no object, I can give it to you in Manhattan but I can't give you the ranch house. How can I give you 5,000 sq ft of housing in Manhattan? The answer is, a highrise. I can give you a highrise apartment. I can give you an apartment, a very nice apartment with four floors and you can have your 5,000 sq ft of living space. And of course, space is at a premium in Manhattan. So when space is at a premium, what do you do? You build up.
So maybe space is at a premium in the Torah too. If you want depth, what do you do? You build up. Maybe the Torah builds up, which is to say, maybe there are layers of meaning in the Torah. There are only nine sentences, but that's just the footprint of the skyscraper; the skyscraper has levels. What does it mean to say that there are levels and meanings in the Torah? That's a very nice esoteric concept, but what does it actually mean to talk about levels?
When we talk about levels of meanings, I think there are many different tools that the Torah uses to layer meaning in its text. I think there are at least ten or so of those tools. These are tools which the Midrash uses, you'll find the Midrash using them even here, but the Midrash doesn't tell you they are using this. The Midrash is not there to there to teach you methodology, the Midrash is there to teach you what the Midrash thinks. The Midrash will use methodology.
One of the methodological tools which we are going to use today, is this tool I call 'where have we heard these words before.' Academics call intertextuality, and basically, the way it works is, every once in a while, you are going to be reading a story in Tanach and there is going to be this strange word, or phrase, that strikes you. And you are going to say to yourself, "Oh, I've heard these words before. This reminds me of something in Joshua, chapter 30." And then you are reading the story again in Melachim, and there will be this other word or phrase, and lo and behold, it also reminds you of something else, and you look it up, and it's also in Joshua, chapter 30. And then, there is this other phrase, and it reminds you of something else in Joshua, chapter 30. And pretty soon you come to the conclusion that this isn't an accident, that the Torah is actually meaning to connect these two events. The Torah is creating a layer. It's saying, "If you want to understand what's happening in the story, you need to understand it in reference to Joshua, chapter 30. It's almost like, creating another analogy: you can say this is binocular vision. Why do you have two eyes? Have you ever wondered why you have two eyes? One eye would have been good enough. Whatever you see with one eye, you see with two eyes, so why did God bother to give you two eyes? What's the answer to that question?
Depth perception. It's not that the other eye is insurance, just in case you lose the first one. The second eye actually contribute something. If you close your eye and look out of one eye, you see everything, but you see it kind of 'flatish.' If we have two eyes, we can perceive depth. How? Because each of your eyes actually is seeing something slightly different, because your eyes are set in different parts of your head. So what's happening is that your brain is actually taking two different layers of information and kind of layering them on top of each other and making one vision out of it. And you know what happens when you do that? You get a sensation of depth. That's how we build depth.
So really the answer to Joe literally is when you are asked, "Why is the Torah deep?" The idea of literary depth or depth in text, is not really so different than the idea of depth perception in sight, or even depth perception in sound. It's the same idea with stereo sound. Every wonder how stereo speakers work or how stereo headphones work? Because the sound that you get from the right hand speaker is slightly different from the sound you get from the left hand speaker. But when your brain put those two together, you get the experience of depth. So something like that is happening in text when the Torah layers these stories on top of each other. Let's try and see if we can discern any kind of layers in the text we just read.
Layers of Meaning: Connecting Elijah to Jonah
Let's start with verse 3 over here. In this little verse, you have at least six references to another story in chumash. Let's see if we can find out what they are. What does this remind us of? Let's listen carefully. Vayar vayakam vayelech el-nafsho. Kind of like those verbs over and over again.
It reminds you of Akeidat Yitzchak, okay. In Akeidat Yitzchak, you have those kinds of verbs, you have those three verbs. So, you might say, "Well, one second! Vayar appears a million times in the Torah! vayakam appears a million times in the Torah! Vayelech, etc! And that's true, but the combination of them don't appear a million times. The combination of them appear in the Akeidah and they appear here and a couple other smaller points in the Torah. But let's take a look at these. Vayar vayakam vayelech el-nafsho. Now, we will get back to the Akeidah in a moment, but is there anything else in this passage that reminds you of the Akeidah besides vayar vayakam vayelech?
The idea of leaving your na'ar somewhere! Of course, in the Akeidah, what does that Abraham do? He leaves his na'ar somewhere. Going on up on the way to the mountain, he leaves ani vena'ar nochad, and then he goes and he leaves his na'ar. What else? Is there any other element besides vayar vayakam vayelech and vayanach et-na'aro sham? That of course is Be’er Sheva. Be’er Sheva plays a little cameo role in the Akeidah, where is Be’er Sheva? It's at the very end of the Akeidah; as they are leaving, Abraham is going to Be’er Sheva and that's what happens. So we're going to come back to the verse in a moment, but let's just not that vayar vayakam vayelech and Be’er Sheva and leaving his na'ar there, are things that are reminiscent of the Akeidah and we'll come back and try to understand what we make of that in a moment. But let's go on to the next verse and see if we find anything there.
Vehu halach bamidbar derech yom vayavo yayeshev tachat rotem echad vayishal et-nafsho lamut vayomer rav atah Hashem kach nafshi ki-lo-tov anochi meavotai. Let's look at this verse here. What story does this reminds us of?
[pause for audience speaking] Most of you were saying Jonah. Why are you telling me Jonah? Could we have a volunteer who said Jonah? Does someone want to tell me why you said Jonah?
Okay. So the idea of the death wish reminds us of Jonah. Does just the existence of a death wish reminds you of Jonah, or does the language of the death wish reminds you of Jonah?
It's really actually the language of the death wish that also reminds you of Jonah. For example, Jonah also said these very words, kach nafshi mimeni. And, there is the tov also with Jonah, but a little bit different: ki tov motzi mechayai, that's what Jonah said. "Take my life from me because death is better than life." With Elijah, it's a little bit different, kach nafshi ki lo tov anochi meavotai. So the death wish reminds you of Jonah. Is there anything else about this that reminds you of Jonah?
He is under a tree. Where was Jonah when he made his death wish? Jonah was also under a tree. So you have two prophets, under a tree, having this sort of death wish. Now, take a look, if you go a little bit further, what happens underneath this tree? What did Elijah get under the tree?
He gets food and he sleeps. What does Jonah get from the tree?
Jonah gets shade. So the shade is kind of this life giving thing that comes from God and here also, you get a different life giving thing, but there is this life giving thing that comes from God; there is this food that comes from the tree.
Vehu halach bamidbar derech yom. What does that remind of you of Jonah? Remember this is a little tiny piece of the Jonah narrative. Did Jonah ever walk a day's journey in Sefer Yonah? Elijah walks a day's journey, did Jonah ever walked a day's journey?
If you look carefully Jonah, Jonah, the Torah says, is mehalach shloshet yamim is a great city that takes three days to traverse the entire city of Nineveh. How far does Jonah goes into it? He goes mehalach yom echad - "he goes one day's walk in," and lo and behold, here you have Elijah who also travelling one day. So you have Elijah travelling one day, sitting under a tree, wishing to die, and you have Jonah travelling one day, sitting under a tree, wishing to die. It's almost as if the scene has shifted, partially with the Akeidah, then, all of a sudden, we are with Jonah.
Okay, so now what I want to do is go back, we're going to look at this a little more carefully. Let's go back to our Akeidah verse over here, and really take a look at it for a moment. Because what I want to show you now is that, we talked about layers of meaning in texts, there is what I want to call a meta layer' of meaning as well, which is, there is a layer of meaning above the connectors between Jonah/Elijah and Akeidah/Elijah.
That meta layer is that there is a pattern within the pattern; which is, as you look at the nature of the patterns that exists, connecting Elijah to the Akeidah, you will find that there is something about the way the pattern works that reminds you about a quirky thing in the way the Elijah and Jonah connection works as well. Let's see if we can find this quirky twist in the pattern. Let's look and examine carefully verse three, and let's put it up against the Akeida, if we can. Here is the Akeidah and here is Elijah.
So here is verse three over here in Kings, and we are going to compare this to the Akeidah. The first thing that we are going to look at is, vayar vayakam vayelech. So let's find that in the Akeidah. It also happens in verse three, just a coincidence, vayashkem Avraham baboker vayachavosh et-chamoro vayikach et-shnei ne'arav ito ve'et Yitzchak beno vayevaka atzei olah, what do you have? Vayakom vayelech el-hamakom asher-amar-lo haElokim.
Now notice what you don't have is vayar. Do you have a vayar?
You do, but not exactly here. You have the vayar right over here. So you've got the vayar vayakom vayelech separated. So what you will say is that, this is true, you have these connections between these three verbs in order, but these three verbs, vayar vayakom vayelech, but the order is a little mixed up. In Melachim, it's vayar vayakom vayelech, in the Akeidah, it's vayakom vayelech and vayar.
Now, let's go a little bit further. Let's look at the role of Be’er Sheva, our next connection, vayavo Be'er Sheva. Let's look at the role of Be'er Sheva in both stories. What is the role of Be'er Sheva in the Elijah story? What happens in Be'er Sheva?
Elijah runs to Be'er Sheva and he is about to have an epiphany before God. On his way towards an epiphany with God, he is running to Be'er Sheva. And let's find Be'er Sheva in the Akeida: Vayashov Avraham el-ne'arav vayakumu vayelchu yachdav el-Be’er-sheva vayeshev Avraham bi'Be’er-sheva. It's all the way at the end and it's sort of the opposite. After you have this epiphany towards God, you end up going to Be'er Sheva.
Now, here is another interesting thing. Let's go to vayanach et-na'aro sham. What is it that Elijah does in Be'er Sheva? "Vayanach et-na'aro sham" – "He parts from his na'ar in Be’er Sheva." Let's listen to what Abraham does in Be'er Sheva. Isn't that interesting? Vayashov Avraham el-ne'arav – Abraham returns to his na'ar. Abraham actually reunites with his na'ar and then gets up and go to Be'er Sheva, exactly the opposite of what Elijah does in the Akeidah, where he is going to Be'er Sheva and leaving behind his na'ar.
So, Elijah goes to Be'er Sheva before the epiphany leaves behind his na'ar, Abraham, after the epiphany, meets up with his na'ar in Be'er Sheva.
Okay, are you with me? Now, let's go back and notice that the vayar vayakam vayelech got switched around too. With Elijah vayar vayakam vayelech; with Abraham, vayakam vayelech vayar. What pattern are you starting to see, with the connection between the Elijah story and the Akeidah story? They are connected but they are reversed. So, strange, we have connections but we have reverse connections. Now let's go, and we have a scene shift. All of a sudden, in the next verse, we also hear connectors to another story, but it's not the Akeidah story, it's the Jonah story. Let's see what we find in the Jonah story.
Vehu halach bamidbar derech yom vayavo yayeshev tachat rotem echad vayishal et-nafsho lamut vayomer rav atah Hashem kach nafshi ki-lo-tov anochi meavotai. Okay, so one interesting thing is, even though there is a death wish here, kach nafshi, look at what Jonah said in that death wish. What Jonah said is, "kach-na et-nafshi mimeni ki tov moti mechayai,” right. And in this little kind of twist, Elijah sort of says the opposite, which is "ki-lo-tov anochi meavotai." Alright, so that's just a little twist. I want to actually go on for a moment.
We notice the verse four reminds us of Jonah. I want to go further now into verse five, we'll come back to verse four, I want to go further into verse five and ask ourselves, "do these reminisces of other stories keep on happening?" Do we hear anything in the next verse that reminds us of these stories too? "Vayishkav vayishan tachat rotem echad" – "And he goes and he sleeps underneath the tree," "vehineh zeh malach nogea bo" –"and a malach comes and touches him," "Vayomer lo kum echol" – "The malach touches him and says, get up and eat." "v'hineh meraashtav ugat retzafim v'tzafachat mayim vayochal vayesht vayashav vayishkav" – "And he goes and he sees this canteen of water and he drinks," "Vayishkav vayishan" – " and he goes back to sleep." "Vayashav malach Hashem sheinit" – "And then the angel comes again," "vayiga bo" – " and wakes him up again, touches him again," "vayomer kum echol" – " get up," "ki rav mimcha haderech" – " because you have a long way to go."
So now my question to you is this, what other story in Tanach do you know, where you have a person, a prophet, who falls asleep at a crucial moment of the story, then another person comes and tries desperately to wake him up, only to have that prophet, so to speak, seek "sleep again"? And only to be frustrated one more time by an emissary of God? What story does this reminds you of? Jacob? Not Jacob.
The answer is, trick question, it's Jonah again. It's Jonah on the ship. Jonah falls asleep and Jonah is then woken up by the Rav Hachovel and then, what does Jonah tried to do? Let's set the scene. Here we have Melachim on one side, and we have Jonah here. So let's go to Jonah falling asleep on the ship. So there is this storm.
Have you ever wondered, by the way, there is this storm, everyone is very scared, there is a saar gadol bayam v'haaniyah chishvah lehishaver – this huge storm, everyone is calling out to God, where is Jonah? "Vayishkav vayeradam," "Jonah went down into the hole and took a nap." Does that strike you as a little odd? Here you have a divine inspired, perfect storm, imagine yourself, you're in a fifth century BCE fishing vessel, there is this huge storm outside, you have the boat going up on these waves and literally in about to capsize , can you imagine, "Oh, it's time for my mid-afternoon nap." Like here I am, can you sleep if you tried? Here is Jonah at the bottom of the ship sleeping. Why is Jonah sleeping?
He had bitachon? Okay, let's take the bitachon theory. Here is the bitachon theory. Vayikrav elav rav hachovel, so here comes the captain, mah-lecha nirdam "what are you doing sleeping?" Kum kra el-Elokeicha, "Go call out to God, maybe God will answer us." So, what happens? Jonah goes up on top of the deck, everyone is calling out to God, did Jonah pray?
Rabbi Fohrman: Jonah did not pray. The one true prophet of God! All the goyim are very frum; Jonah is not praying. What's going on? What's really the answer to this question?
I want to suggest a theory to you. You know Chazal about the fish? Imagine Joe on the plane with Jonah, you know what I'm talking about? How many fish were there in the story? You know what I am talking about? The first time the fish appears, it's a dag. The second time the fish appears, it's a dagah. You know what the Chazal say?
You know this one, right? First, Jonah was in a male fish, then he wasn't davening in a male fish, so Hakadosh Baruch Hu made the male fish spit Jonah into the female fish, female fish was pregnant, not a lot of room in the female fish, and that's when Jonah prayed.
Now imagine trying this out on Joe on the plane. "Joe, you know how many fish there were in Jonah? There were actually two fish, the Rabbis say. No, really, Joe. First he was in the male fish." Joe will think you are crazy. What are the Rabbis saying? What do they mean by this?
What are the Rabbis saying? I think what the Rabbis are saying is, look carefully at the text. What do they see? What they see is a pattern. The pattern is, why is Jonah falling asleep? He's falling asleep because he knows what the storm is. What's the storm? The storm is God. So if the storm is God, what is Jonah doing? Jonah is running away.
The whole point is, he's boreach melifnei Hashem – "He is running away from God." So the storm is God, God saying, "Jonah, we've got to talk." What's Jonah saying? "I am not interested in talking. So I am going to sleep. I know it's very difficult to sleep. It doesn't make a difference. I am going to sleep." Jonah goes to sleep, and, unfortunately for Jonah, the rav hachovel wakes him up. He can't escape on the ship, and he can't escape into sleep. So the next thing that happened is, the people say, "What shall we do with you?" And what did Jonah say? Throw me overboard.
Now remember, Jonah does not know what we know, which is, there is a fish waiting for him. So if Jonah doesn't know what we know, and he knows that there is a storm out there, a divinely sent storm, what is he really saying "throw me overboard"? He's saying, "kill me if you have to." What he is really saying to God, in a certain way, is, "I'm running away from you. If you're not going to let me run away on the boat, and you're not going to let me run away into sleep, I'll run away into another sleep, into a death kind of sleep."
However, Jonah is frustrated in that too, because there’s another emissary of God waiting for him, which is, the fish. Jonah is not being allowed to sleep. He's not being allowed to sleep the first time, and he is not being allowed to sleep the second time. And what Chazal say, he prayed in the fish, all Chazal were doing was extending the cycle one step further. They saw the pattern and say, even when he was in the fish, he wasn't going to pray and actually being cornered, and literally having no more room physically, spiritually, in the second fish, that's when Jonah prayed. But the point is, do you see the parallel to Elijah, right? Elijah tries to sleep, there is a divine emissary that wakes him up. Elijah tries to sleep again, there is a divine emissary that wakes him up. In Jonah's case, the name of the divine emissary is the malach. In the Elijah story, the name of the divine emissary is the rav hachovel; the captain of the ship. The first one is the rav hachovel, the second one is the fish.
Now here is the interesting thing. You might say that a rav hachovel has nothing to do with an angel. But if you actually think about it carefully, the captain of the ship does have something to do with an angel because, who is the captain of the ship? A ship of who? Of sailors. What's the word for sailors?
It's a play on words. But what are the sailors called in Jonah? Botice what the sailors are called, spelled differently, but the sailors are called malachim, play on words. So there is the head malach, as it were, that wakes up Jonah, and then there is the malach, of course, in the Elijah story, that wakes up Elijah.
By the way, first of all, notice what Elijah says, "vayashal et-nafsho lamut vayomer rav atah Hashem kach nafshi mimeni," "It's enough for me, God, take my soul from me,” and then the malach catches them the second time, here is that word again, "lech echol ki rav mimecha haderech," you hear that? Rav in Elijah's voice, rav in the angel's voice. What was the name of the head sailor? Rav hachovel. So the Torah is going out of its way to create all these little connections between these stories.
But here is the fascinating thing, look at the meta pattern. We go back to our story of Melachim, if we go back to our story of Elijah, and we look together at verse four and verse five, verse four is Elijah going for a day's journey, wanting to die, and saying "take my soul from me." What story does that reminds us of? Jonah. Jonah where? Jonah underneath the tree.
Now, we look at verse five, when he falls asleep and he falls asleep again, and he gets woken up, he gets woken up again, what story does this reminds us of? Jonah. Where in Jonah? Jonah on the boat. And now look at the meta pattern, which story happens first in the story of Jonah? The ship. First the ship, then the tree. What is happening in our story? First the tree, then the ship. Does it reminds you of something? It reminds you of the same meta pattern as the Akeidah! In the Akeidah, you have reverse parallels going on. In Jonah, you have reverse parallels going on. What's going on?
Let's continue one more time, and read another verse of the story of Elijah, and ask ourselves again, does this remind us of anything else? Do we here memories of any other story? We're up to verse eight right now. Vayakam vayochal vayishteh vayelech bechoach haachilah hahi arbaim yom ve'arbaim laylah ad har haElokim chorev – so he went, he got up and he ate and he went for 40 days and 40 nights until he got to the mountain of God, he got to Horeb. Okay, anybody?
No eating for 40 days and 40 nights and association with the mountain of God, Horeb, answer? Moses. Moses also did not eat, "lechem lo ochalti mayim lo shatiti arbaim yom ve'arbaim laylah," Moses says, "I didn't eat for 40 days and 40 nights." When? "Ba'aloti haharah" – "When I went up the mountain." So you have Elijah going up the mountain, the same mountain, Horeb, going 40 days and 40 nights without eating, a little bit of a difference which is, when does Moses not eat? When he is on top of the mountain, when did Elijah not eat? When he is on the way to the mountain, maybe a little reverse there. But let's keep on reading: vayavo-sham el-hama’arah – "And then he comes to," translate those words for me, anyone?
He comes to the cave. Now, is there anything strange here about this word? Is this how you would write it? He went el-hama’arah – "to the cave," anything strange about that?
Audience: Why is this HAma’arah?
Rabbi Fohrman: Right! Why is it hama’arah? Do you understand? If you tell me, vayavo sham el-ma’arah I would understand, and if Elijah found the cave and he went into a cave, what do you mean, 'he went into the cave'? 'The Cave' implies what? It implies a specific cave, it implies, you know what cave! What do you mean, "You know what cave"?
Now enter Chazal. You know what Chazal say in the Talmud, in Megillah? It says, "Do you know what this cave was?" This was, not marat hamachelah, that’s not on Horeb. That's right. Chazal says in the Talmud, in Megillah, that this was the mikrat hatzur – the crevice of the rock that Moses was in when Moses experienced an epiphany on Horeb. Now you say, "How did Chazal know that?” It's obvious how Chazal knew it because Chazal saw all these connections. Chazal understood that this story was connected to the Moses story, they saw the literary connections, and then if you say hama’arah, well of course we know what hama’arah is, it's the case. Well what cave? It's the cave that you always experience the epiphany of God at Horeb. Where else are you going to go at Horeb, if you want to meet God? You go to the cave, you go to Moses cave, that's how Chazal reads it.
Suddenly he goes to the cave, vayalen sham vehineh devar-Hashem elav vayomer lo mah-lecha poh Eliyahu. So then the dvar-Hashem comes to him and the dvar-Hashem says, "mah-lecha poh Eliyahu." So Elijah comes and God says, "mah-lecha poh Eliyahu" which is a strange thing. What are you doing here, Elijah? That's certainly not the way that Moses was received; what are you doing here, Moses? Let's see if we can go back to the epiphany story with Moses for a moment.
"Ve'atah im-na matzati chen be'eineicha hodi'eni na et-derachcha ve'eda'acha lema'an emtza-chen be'eineichakure'eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh" – "If I've found favor in your eyes, let me understand your way, so I can know you, so I can understand you, so I can lead the Israelites effectively, and I also want you to see ki amecha hagoy hazeh." Now this is also very interesting with Moses, because remember, what offer had God made to Moses? The offer that God made to Moses was, “hanichah li veyichar-api vahem va'achalem” – leave me alone and I will start over with you, “ve'e'eseh otcha legoy gadol” – and I will make you into a great nation.
What was Moses really saying? Moses said, I want this direct connection with you. I like that idea but, "ure'eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh" – "the people are sinners, the people have sinned, but they are yours, God. You can't quit on them now, and you can't get away with that. So the people are yours." So God then says, "gam et-hadavar hazeh asher dibarta e'eseh ki-matzata chen be'einay va'eda'acha beshem har'eni na et-kvodecha ani a'avir kol-tuvi al-paneicha vekarati veshem Hashem lefaneicha vechanoti et-asher achon verichamti et-asher arachem lo tuchal lir'ot et-panay ki lo-yir'ani ha'adam vachay hineh makom iti venitzavta al-hatzur vehayah ba'avor kvodi vesamticha benikrat hatzur vesakoti chapi aleicha ad-ovri." You see a lot of these themes coming up in Elijah's epiphany as well, the idea that he is not really going to be able to see God, he is only going to be able to see God's back, vahasiroti et-kapi vera'ita et-achorai ufanai lo yera'u. Let's go to Elijah's epiphany, you'll see similar kinds of things.
Vayavo sham el-hama’arah rav hapoh Eliyahu is different. "Vayomer kano kineti laHashem" – "what are you doing here?" Listens to Elihah's answer, "I acted zealous on behalf of God," azvu britecha benei Yisrael et-mizbechotecha harasu v'et-nevieicha hargu becharev," "the Israelites have left your covenant, they have destroyed your prophets." "Va'ivater ani levadi" – " I am the only one left." "Vayevakshu et-nafshi lekachtah" – " and they want to kill me too." What about this reminds you of Moses?
Va'ivater ani levadi reminds you of Moses. Because remember, Moses after the golden calf is also really alone. God said, it's going to be just you, I am going to throw everyone out. Elijah is sort of setting himself up in the very Moses-like role, it's just me, everyone else has died; very similar to the golden calf, right? The Jews have worshipped some other God, I'm acting zealously on behalf of God, that's what I am doing here. What's God's answer? God's answer is, "Vayomer tze ve'amadta bahar lifnei Hashem v'hineh Hashem over," same thing as the epiphany with Moses. "God is going to pass before you, and there is going to be a whole lot of things, and you are not going to see God." But then there is going to be something, and you're going to see God. Veruach bedolah vechazak mefarek harim - "there is going to be this great wind that is going to shatter rocks," lifnei Hashem lo varuach Hashem – "but God is not in the wind." Va'achar haruach raash – "and after there is going to be this great thunder." Lo varaash Hashem – "but God will not be in the thunder.” and after the rash, esh, ”there is going to be fire,” velo baesh Hashem – "but after the fire," and here is unetaneh tokef, "kol demamah dakah" – " there is going to be this still small voice."
Now if you look at the three things where there is not Hashem, what are those three things? Those three things are the ruach, this great shattering ruach, there's esh, and raash. Now if you add all that up together, what would you say that equals to? There is great wind, there is great thunder and there is fire. So you would say a storm, except it's not a normal storm. A normal storm is a rain storm, it's a water storm, here, it's the opposite of rain storm; it's a fire storm. By the way, going back to Jonah, did we have a storm? We sure had a storm, but there it was a rain storm, it was a water storm. Who was the water storm? The water storm actually was God. If you take all these elements together, God is saying there is a storm, it's a fire storm, but God is not in the fire storm.
By the way, think of storms in Jonah, saar is the Hebrew word for storm, that's what it was in Jonah. Do we every have a saar or a saarah, a storm with Elijah? Is there ever a storm, a saarah with Elijah?
At the very end of Elijah's life, he ascends to shamayim [heaven] in what? It says there is a saarah gedol, there's a saarah that comes, and susei esh – and there are horses of fire, it's a fire storm that is coming to take Elijah to heaven. What is the fire storm? God. Do you understand the paradox over here? At the end of his life, he does meet God in the firestorm. But now God says, it’s almost like the firestorm is for Elijah, but God is saying this is something else, and I am not in the fire storm. Do you know where I am? I am in the kol demamah dakah. We'll get back to that in a moment.
I just want to point out one thing after this epiphany. What's Elijah's reaction? "Vayehi kishmoa Eliyahu" – As Elijah hears this, vayalet panav beadarto, he hides his face in his cloak, because God has appeared to him and he is scared. What does this reminds you of? Who else hides his face when he sees the presence of God for the first time? The answer is Moses. Where does Moses hide his face? At the sneh, at the burning bush. There also there was fire, by the way, God had appeared in fire. And Moses seeing that, "vayaster Moshe panav" – "he goes and he hides his face in his hand” because he doesn't want to see God.
So what happens is interesting. If you look at the letter pattern here, we have in immediate succession in the Elijah story, reminds us of Moses twice. The first time it's Moses at the Golden Calf, the second time when Moses hides his face, it's Moses where? At the burning bush, at the sneh. Which story comes first in Moses life? The burning bush is Moses’ inauguration into prophecy. Which is the climax in Moses’ prophecy? It's Moses’ epiphany in the wake of the Golden Calf.
But in Elijah, the stories are reversed. You have first the epiphany reminding you of Moses with the Golden Calf, and then after that, Moses at the sneh. You see the same letter pattern. You now see with three different stories. We have three different scene shifts. We have Elijah in the Akeidah, Elijah and Jonah, Elijah and Moses, one after another, it's all reversed. What does it means? Well, I am out of time. [laughter]
Audience: Hashem will always take us back, we will always get second chances and third chances…
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, good! I think you're right. Let's just develop that theory. There is another interesting thing too, just something I noticed last week. I don't know quite what to make of it but I am just going to share it with you and you guys can do with this what you will as long as you don't ascribe it to me.
There is one other interesting little echo over here. When Elijah goes and gets up, remember the angel touches him twice. Let's go back to that question, why did the angels do that? Elijah falls asleep once, and then he falls asleep a second time, and then the angel goes and say, You have to get up and eat, “ki rav mimcha haderech.” First of all, what's the deal with that? Ki rav mimcha haderech? You didn't even know Elijah was going on a long journey, you didn't know until the angel; says, "You've got a long journey ahead of you." It's almost like the angel decided, after Elijah fell asleep the second time, "it's time for you to go to Horeb.” It doesn't sound like Elijah was going to Horeb; it sounds like Elijah was in the desert, he was in Be'er Sheva, he went there because he wanted to die, he wasn't going to Horeb. Then he fell asleep, the angel woke him up, seemingly, if you've just eaten, everything would be fine, kum echol. But strangely, he goes back to sleep. The angel's response to him going back to sleep the second time is, "you've got a long way to go. You better eat up because it's time for you to get to Horeb." It sounds like it's almost the angel's idea. What's happening over here?
So look at Elijah over here at that pivotal moment when he goes to Horeb. Vayakam, vayochal vayishteh vayelech. Where else do you have those four verbs in immediate successions; Vayakam, vayochal, vayishteh, vayelech, not exactly the same order, but those four verbs with nothing else in between? It's with Esau. Where?
It's the first story of Jacob and Esau. Where do you have it there? Vayochol, vayeshteh, vayakam, vayelech. What are the next three words?
Vayivez Esav et-habechorah. It's weird, the only other time in Tanach we have these four words in succession, why am I being remind of Esau all of a sudden, in that story? Is there something that Esau-like about that Elijah is doing now? This is the question. I leave you to ponder that. Let's think about what Esau was doing, the Torah tells us about what Esau was doing. "Vayivez Esav et-habechorah" - Esau was debasing the bechorah. He was taking the bechorah and saying it's meaningless. Why?
By the way, interestingly, Esau had a death wish also at that time, doesn't he? Remember what Esau says? "hineh anochi holech lamut" – "I am going to die," remind you a little bit of Elijah here too. Esau thinks he is going to die and therefore Esau is willing to sell the bechorah, he just doesn't need the bechorah and he is willing to die.
Now, what I am about to tell you is speculative, but it's kind of interesting. It's actually based a little bit on Rav Hutner, I saw it years ago in Pachad Yitzchak,. Rav Hutner wants to argue that there are two great forces in the world, so to speak. One force he call the force of bechor, to be a bechor. The other force he calls, is the opposite force, the opposite force from bechor. How do you spell bechor? Bet-chaf-resh. Do you see anything interesting about bet-chaf-resh? Two, twenty, two hundred; you see what's happening here? These are the two's. So what would the opposite of bechor be? The opposite of bechor he is going to argue, is going to be rechev. Rechev – two hundred, twenty, two.
What Rav Hutner wants to argues that bechor and rechev represents two ways of operating in the word, potentially, two different ways that Jews can operate in the word, or any different way that two individuals inside people of Israel can operate. Let's talk about what a bechor is. What is a bechor? A bechor is a two, twenty, two hundred. Who does a bechor relate to? A bechor of who? A bechor of their father. How do you spell father? Aleph-bet. You see there? You see the pattern? One, two, two, twenty, two hundred. What sort of mathematical pattern are you looking to when you put the father and the bechor together? Father on top of bechor, one, two, and then just plot the graph for me. What does the graph looks like? One, two, twenty, you see that right? Twenty, two hundred. Exponential expansion, right? Powers of ten expansion.
Now, let's talk about rechev. The relationship to a rechev and a father would be, one, two, two hundred, twenty, two. Tell me what the graph looks like? A backwards parabola; a different graph. If you think about these two parabolas, the parabola of rechev looks like this. The parabola of bechor looks like this. Father is here, bechor looks like this, rechev looks like that. It's sort of curious that if you even think about the graph of a rechev, the graph of a rechev kind of reminds you of what a rechev actually looks like. What is a rechev? A rechev is a chariot? What is a chariot? A chariot is a thing that you sit on, a thing that maybe a father would sit on. If you imagine, it's almost like this bold shape thing, you have this ground over here, you have this rechev sitting on top of the ground. What's the purpose of a rechev? Let's talk about the father and let's talk about the ground or let's talk about what's underneath the rechev.
What's the purpose of a rechev? What does a rechev do? It carries you. So if I have something that carries me, even say a car, what makes for a good car? What's the difference between a Lexus, a really nice rechev and, say, an old white Pinto jalopy? Stability, transmission, what does the ride feels like in a Lexus? Smooth. What does it feel like ‘72 Pinto? Bumpy. So the purpose of a good rechev is to insulate the rider from the ground.
A rechev is primarily an insular vehicle, it's there to insulate you, it's also there to reflect. If you think what a parabola does, a parabola, mathematically, is the perfectly reflection vehicle, it reflects back. So which way is the reflection going? If father is here, up in heaven, what is the purpose of a rechev? It reflects back to God. And even if it reflects outwards, a rechev is also a sign of majesty, it reflects glory to the people whoever sees it, but also reflects its energy back towards God.
Rav Hutner argues that's one way of seeing your mission in life; you can see yourself as a rechev. You can say, if I see myself as a rechev, what is my mission statement? How do I define my mission statement as a Jew? The way I define my mission statement is, "I am here to reflect God's glory back to Him, and also to reflect God’s glory outward towards the world,." I am going to insulate myself from the world, I am in a rechev, because the world is damaging. Everybody out there are potentially sinners, there is bad, I need to insulate myself, I can't be part of the world because I would then be pogem in my relationship with my creator. My job is to reflect God's glory back to Him, and back to the world. I am not really there to teach the world anything, my job is just to live in my four amot, to be an example, make sure that I don't get ruined and through my life to reflect God's glory. That is one mission, but there is another thing. And by the way, what is Elijah known as? How did Elijah die? He goes up to God, b'richvei esh, God responds to him, he is reflecting God's glory, he goes up in this chariot up to God.
There is another force, the other force is bechor. Bechor is exactly the opposite. The parabola goes the other way. If I am a bechor, I am part of the children, I am part of the family. The job of a bechor is to transmit, to be a conduit, to make the parabola go the other way, to transmit, to be involved in the world, to be involved with people, to involve even other non-Jews, somehow take that energy of God, teach, and to somehow transmit it to the others. I am not trying to reflect it back to God, I am trying to transmit it outwards. It's one, two, twenty, two hundred. It's going out there. It's more dangerous, but it's an entirely different way of seeing things. Vayivez Esav et-habechorah, the echo is in Elijah. It's almost as if Elijah is taking that mishnah bechor and throwing it away and saying, I am the rechev. I am not the bechor. I am the opposite of bechor. It strikes me as if the falling asleep twice was a kind of running way, similar to Jonah. What was he doing?
Think about what Moses was doing after the Golden Calf. What was Moses preoccupied with after the Golden Calf? Saving the people of Israel. God wanted to destroy the Israelites. Moses is willing to do anything to save the people of Israel.
What is Elijah preoccupied with doing? He sees it entirely differently. "Kano kineti laHashem Elokei tzevaot" –"I acted zealously on your behalf." To act zealously is to be a rechev. I am reflecting God's glory, I am a rechev, that is my job. "Va'ivater ani levadi" – "I am the only one here," "azvu britecha benei Yisrael." It's literally the opposite of Moses.
In the Moses case, God was angry at the people of Israel for having left behind the covenant. In this case, Elijah was angry at the people of Israel for having left behind the covenant. But the roles are reversed. God comes out and asks Elijah, mah lecha poh Eliyahu – "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He says it twice. Elijah answers the same thing twice. The second time Elijah answers, God says, it's time for a new prophet. Lech, go and appoint Elisha as prophet instead of you.
I am going to close with this idea.
Finding God's Justice in the Prayer of Unetaneh Tokef
You have backwards stories. What is the common denominator of those stories? The common denominator of the Akeidah, the common denominator of Jonah, the common denominator of Moses, in all three of those stories, what's happening? All three of those stories, they are all stories about an epiphany; a prophet has an encounter with God and the encounter is surprising, and it's surprising in the same kind of way.
In the Akeidah, what is happening? In the Akeidah, God said, "Kill your child." If you didn't know the end of the Akeidah, and you are Abraham imagining, "What is going to be the revelation of God at the Akeidah?" The revelation of God at the Akeidah is yasher koach, you killed your child. That would have been the revelation. But that's NOT the revelation. The surprising revelation is, "No! If you want to really understand who I am, here I am, I am NOT someone who wants your child, I am a rachaman. I have the right to take your child, but I don't want that. I am ultimately a merciful God, I am not going to do that."
Jonah also. Jonah is flabbergasted. The people of Nineveh have sinned, they deserve to be punished. The epiphany there also is, God is saying "no, I am a rachaman, you have to understand, yes they sinned, but I am a rachaman.
Same thing with Moses, if you're Moses, what do you expect the epiphany to be? Here is God saying over and over again," I want to destroy them, I want to destroy them." Moses is desperately trying to save them. By the way the epiphany, God says, "help me understand who you are" God responds, " You want to know who I really am? 13 midot harachamim. That's who I really am. That's my essential self. You know how mind blowing this is that God is here saying, "I am going to kill them, I am going to destroy them," you want to know who I really am? Yud gimel tzerachamim is who I really am.
That is the climax of prophecy for Abraham, for Moses, and for Jonah, their understanding that at his core, God is a rachaman. For Elijah, it is the reverse. Elijah is the reverse of those stories, and what ends up being the climactic moment for him is basically what he just says, no, kano kineti laHashem Elokei tzevaot – " I have acted zealously on your behalf," and it's essentially the story of Elijah's retirement, where God says, I need a different prophet. And it's backwards. Whereas for all these other prophets, their epiphany with the climax of their prophecy, for Elijah it's as if he’s regressing and going backwards from a climactic moment. Because it's his resignation from prophecy, in favor of Elisha that will take the mantle in a different kind of way. I think as you look to Unetaneh Tokef, it will leave you with the thought of, what does this say to you about the meaning of the still small voice in the Unetaneh Tokef? Have a good Yom Kippur.