Five Biblical Portraits represents an old-new approach to Jewish textual commentary. This sequel to Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God continues the work done in that volume of bringing religious figures to life and studying their place both in the text and in our lives. Wiesel reflects on his own life as well as the tragedy of the Holocaust as he discusses each figure and adds personal framing and insight into the religious study. Through sensitive readings of the scriptures as well as the Talmudic and Hasidic sources, Wiesel illuminates Joshua, Elijah, Saul, Jeremiah, and Jonah.
Elijah: he is present to children and old men alike. In moments of solitude, he emerges to lend wings to our imagination. In moments of joy, he is there to share in it. Elijah: the impossible but necessary hope, the reality of fantasy. Elijah: a poet’s dream, a philosopher’s challenge. Elijah and his miracles. Elijah and his battles. Elijah and his victories, which are our victories. Elijah, our intercessor. He took God to task and God thanked him for his courage—God, but not the people. The people he defended actually made fun of him.
A few words about the concept, the role, the fabric of the prophet in general. Who is a prophet? Someone who is searching—someone who is being sought. Someone who listens—and who is listened to. Someone who sees people as they are, and as they ought to be. Someone who reflects his time, yet lives outside time.
A prophet is forever awake, forever alert; he is never indifferent, least of all to injustice, be it human or divine, whenever or wherever it may be found. God’s messenger to man, he somehow becomes man’s messenger to God.
Restless, disquieting, he is forever waiting for a signal, a summons. Asleep, he hears voices and follows visions; his dreams do not belong to him.
Often persecuted, always in anguish, he is alone—even when addressing crowds, when conversing with God or himself, when describing the future or evoking the past.
There is sometimes a theatrical aspect to him; he seems to recite lines written by someone else. And yet, in order for him to be a prophet, he must descend into the very depths of his being. In order for him to be inhabited or penetrated—or invaded—by God, he must be truly, authentically himself.
Hence, a prophet’s tragic dimension: having attained the highest degree of self-realization, he gives himself to God. The more he exists, the more he belongs to God, who speaks through his voice and uses him as a link, a bridge, an instrument. The prophet is at once an irritant and a simplifier. What others will think or learn, the prophet already knows; he is the first to know. He is God’s sounding board. But, at times, he is the last to know: Elijah spoke and occasionally did not know what he had said, according to the Talmud.
In this respect, Elijah is no exception. He preached, he performed miracles, won many battles and surely many arguments, and yet, unlike most prophets, he lived and lived and lived . . .
But when one scrutinizes the text, one is confronted by elements that are disturbing. The man was never happy, not even in his triumph. Furthermore, he seems to have had no past, no roots. His life was a dramatic passage from eternity to eternity; he came from legend and returned to legend.
Historically, Elijah is a contemporary of Homer. He appears in the biblical narrative thundering, overturning all obstacles, electrifying everything around him. Nobody expected him, but once he was there, he alone mattered.
Who is he, really?
We study the sources—both biblical and talmudic—and certain details, certain traits emerge as significant and revealing. We know, from a passing remark, that he wears a “garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins.” His hair is long. He has no particular profession; in fact, he is unemployed, homeless, and a bachelor. Physically strong, “he could run ahead of horses for eighteen miles,” although his diet is rather poor: we know what he ate and drank in the desert. We also know that he has the perplexing habit of appearing and disappearing under the most unusual circumstances. Daring, imaginative, provocative, he is a masterful stage director: he knows how to impress people and move them to ecstasy.
Such is the biblical portrait of Elijah: tough, fierce, and cruel, irascible, inflexible, monolithic, a destroyer of false idols and their worshipers. His power of concentration is remarkable. He does not talk; he commands. But when he listens to one person, he listens to no one else. When he is alone, he is the loneliest creature on earth; when surrounded by crowds, he is even lonelier. A man of extremes, he rejects weaknesses and compromises. His severity and rigor are legendary; he hardly ever smiles. More than a person, he is destiny.
The way he expresses himself is always striking. No sermons, no speeches, no discourses on morality. Short, biting sentences: verbal whiplashes. To King Ahab, who confiscates Naboth’s garden, he snaps: Haratzachta vegam yarashta? “You have killed a man and now you shall get his heritage too?” If that brief opinion is not effective enough, he continues: “Just as the dogs licked the blood of your victim, they will lick yours.” To Ahab’s successor, Ahaziah, he says: “You will not leave your bed alive.” To the officer who has come to arrest him, he says: “A fire from heaven will devour you.” And somehow his prophecies come true.
Elijah inspires fear and awe. Whatever he wants, he gets. Whatever he predicts, happens. Let him open his mouth and the earth will tremble. Let him lift his arm and men, seized with terror, will feel the Angel of Death.
Elijah, a man with no history, makes history by galvanizing it. His mission is to punish complacent kings and flatterers, to bend the vain and encourage the humble, to show the great how small they are, and the mighty how vulnerable they are. Wherever he appears, one breathes the fury and flame of heaven. Relentless in his fight against injustice, he unmasks hypocrisy and falsehood. Whenever he enters the picture, things are bound to explode.