The spirit of Elijah

Great leaders have replicated his courage against all odds.

Elijah (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
ELIJAH'S CLIMACTIC confrontation on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal, the centerpiece of this week’s haftarah (I Kings 18:1-39), which ends in the Divine acceptance of the prophet’s sacrifice over that of the pagan priests, is one of the most sublime events in religious literature.
One of the definitive moments in world history, it captures the moral courage and imagination of humanity. Elijah’s courageous stand is the template and inspiration for all the great lone stands of individual conscience in the cause of moral righteousness against overwhelming mobs and arrogant tyrants throughout history.
Elijah’s heroic example surely played a role in inspiring the brave stand of the Maccabees against a pagan, cynical darkness that seemed to pervade the entire known world of their time. We hear clear echoes of it in Martin Luther’s simple, unadorned testimony before the entire religious and political panoply of the medieval world at the Diet of Worms in 1521. And we see it in Winston Churchill’s fearless defiance in the face of the forces of evil during the Battle of Britain, in the summer of 1940.
Elijah’s lone stand, his “High Noon” confrontation against apparently insurmountable odds, defines the very identity, the psychological DNA of modern Israel. We see fearless Elijah standing approvingly behind David Ben-Gurion when he proclaims the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. We see him watching Moshe Dayan’s confident, casual press conference on the eve of the Six Day War when Israel was encircled by Arab armies and 100,000 Egyptian soldiers had contemptuously swept aside United Nations guarantees and occupied the Sinai.
And we see him standing silent and supportive at the back of the United Nations General Assembly on November 10, 1974, applauding when Israeli UN Ambassador Chaim Herzog contemptuously ripped the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution into shreds. During the long, hard years Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led Israel against the terrorist onslaught of the second Palestinian intifada, Elijah was there at his side, a still, steady presence.
The breathtaking showdown on Mount Carmel was not the end of the story, only the beginning. Elijah whipped up a moment of moral fervor and unleashed a bloodbath. The entire pagan religious leadership of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annihilated at a stroke. But it didn’t change anything – at first. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel stayed in power. They kept the loyalty of the army and the state bureaucracy. Soon it was Elijah who was running for his life, never to return openly to the Northern Kingdom.
But he had lit a fire in the imagination of an entire new generation. About 20 years later, according to the indications in the Book of Kings, a religious-nationalist revolution toppled the Ahab-Jezebel dynasty and its supporters once and for all.
A moment of melodrama on the slopes of Mount Carmel was not enough. A full generation of patient organization, building a new political- religious national movement that was prepared to take over the state had to follow. This was the work of Elijah’s very different successor, the remarkably practical and modern Elisha.
We see the spirits of Elijah and Elisha at work in both the spiritual and political history of modern Israel. Ben-Gurion embodied the qualities of both. So did Dayan, an inspiring charismatic military leader when the infant State of Israel most desperately needed one during the first two decades of independence. This was his Elijah mission. Then the qualities of valor, tactical practicality and excellence he fostered became embodied in the structures of the Israel Defense Forces. This was the work of his Elisha successors.
When Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren dramatically blew the shofar at the Western Wall on June 7, 1967, he was expressing the spirit of Elijah. Then, it was his contemporary and great rival Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who excelled at the practical, essential Elisha mission of raising an entire generation of patriotic believers. But the Elijah moment had to come first.
This understanding of Elijah stands at variance with the cozy little kosher Santa Claus we have turned him into, an “Oy Oy!” Hasid from the shtetl dressed in black who pops up for a quick wave and a sickly sweet grin at the end of the annual Seder. But that is a fairy tale Elijah, an Elijah Sigmund Freud would have nailed as an infantile, regressive toy for emotional babies to suck on.
It is not the commanding presence who confronts and inspires us on the slopes of Mount Carmel. That Elijah is a man and a leader of men. His true immortality resides in the great leaders who have replicated his courage against all odds.
Martin Sieff is chief analyst for The Globalist and a senior fellow of the American University in Moscow. He is author of ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East’.