On prior occasions in examining this haftara we have emphasized the importance of not relying upon miracles. We learn that it’s best to benefit from the natural order of the world and to be suspicious of supernatural occurrences. The Shunamite woman who is the protagonist of our haftara knew this and tried to resist the miraculous interventions that Elisha wanted to undertake on her behalf.
When asked what political favors she desires or intercession on her behalf among the powerful, she demurs in a beautiful turn of phrase: “Betoch ami anochi yoshevet,” in the midst of my people I dwell. (Melachim II 4:13). Rabbeinu Bachye, in his commentary on Parshat Ki Tisa, makes an observation about standing out and being counted that harkens back to our haftara.
Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that it is dangerous for a person to be counted as an individual, rather than to rely upon the communal prayers and collective welfare. According to his reading, the Shunamite woman does not want Elisha to advocate on her behalf because she knows that being singled out in any way will rebound to the disadvantage of the individual so remarked upon. The context of this discussion is the collection of the half-shekel for the purpose of counting the Children of Israel. The people are counted, but they are not enumerated or held for examination as individuals.
It is commonly understood from this approach (examples are brought in the classical commentators – in particular, from King David’s disastrous census) that if people are counted as individuals then they become susceptible to misfortune. Rabbeinu Bachye brings the example of Elimelech in the opening passages of Megillat Ruth. Elimelech is named and distinguished from among the other inhabitants of Judea, then immediately afterwards the text relates his death.
Rabbeinu Bachye mentions that according to the teachings of our Sages, the events in our haftara took place on Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana, Hashem judges all living things one at a time on their individual merits. Our practice is to unite in communal prayer and attempt to enmesh our outcomes with the whole community in the hope that communal prayer will protect us all.
It is intriguing to note that the Zohar (Noach 69 2:7) makes a similar association in a very different context, also invoking our haftara. Rabbeinu Bachye wrote his commentary on Chumash at about the turn of the fourteenth century of the Common Era. This is roughly the same time that the first coherent editions of a text of the Zohar emerged adjacent to (but probably not directly from) Rabbi Moshe De Leon, who was niftar in 1305. Rabbeinu Bachye was a native of Zaragoza and would have been steeped in the lore of the Zohar, although he makes almost no direct reference to the text per se in his own work. Clearly the shared yet distinct interpretation of this passage reflects a train of thought that was potent in Iberia of the late Middle Ages.
The Zohar examines the above ideas about the fate of individuals singled out from the collective in its discussion of the selection of Noach. Noach, of course, was selected for a favorable outcome as an individual and by virtue of his unique personal merit. The Zohar points out that the circumstances of the flood were historically unique and the salvation of Noach and his family was an exceptional outcome. It uses this idea as a springboard to examine Divine selection and its ramifications. In referring to the Shunamite woman, the Zohar also mentions that the events transpired on Rosh Hashana. The Zohar says that Elisha was cognizant of this and of the peril it represented, so when Elisha offers to intercede on her behalf, his intention is to do so in the divine court with the King of Kings Himself. But the Shunamite woman has no desire to see herself called out in such a way. I dwell among my people, she responds. I will have my fate be the same as theirs; I’m much more comfortable taking my chances with the prayers of my community than accepting even the personal advocacy of one of the greatest of the prophets.