Can we allow an ancient story to tell itself on its own terms? Are we willing to invite a story’s images without insisting upon its meanings? Can we meet the gaze of a story, assuring it with our questions that it has our attention and we are not furtively glancing beyond it?
Elijah would come regularly to the Bet Midrash/study house of Rabbi [Yehudah haNassi]. One day—it was Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new month—Rabbi waited for him but he didn’t come. Later, he said to Elijah: Why, sir, did you not come? Elijah said: Until I awakened Abraham, washed his hands and he prayed and then I laid him down again, the same for Isaac and then for Jacob [I ran out of time]. Rabbi said: Why not wake them all at the same time?
Elijah said: I reasoned that their prayer would be so powerful that it would bring the Messiah before his time.
Rabbi said to Elijah: And are there those in this world who are like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Elijah said: There is Rabbi Hiyyah and his sons. Rabbi decreed a fast [in order to plead for rain, urgently needed] and Rabbi Hiyyah and his sons were appointed to take the prayer leader’s podium [where Rabbi Hiyyah would lead, supported by his two sons]. Rabbi Hiyyah recited: ‘Who causes the wind to blow’ and the wind gusted; He recited: ‘He causes the rain to fall’ and the rain came. When he was about to recite: ‘He revives the dead,’ the world trembled. They said in heaven: Who has revealed mysteries in the world? Others said: It was Elijah. They brought Elijah and whipped him with sixty flaming lashes. Elijah, in the guise of a fiery bear, went into that prayer gathering and scattered them. (Babylonian Baba Metzia 85b)
Rabbi Yehudah certainly recognizes Elijah the Prophet. Do others know him? How is the atmosphere of the Bet Midrash, the study house, affected by the knowledge—or even the suspicion—that Elijah is present? Why does Elijah come to learn regularly in the Bet Midrash?
Why do the story’s events focus on the celebration of the new month on the one hand and a fast day, declared to pray for rain urgently needed, on the other?
Elijah reports that prayer blurs the distinction between the living and dead. With his help, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob rise to pray—at least at the celebration of the new month. Does Elijah’s evidence continue to ring true: that past lives are vital and powerful in the world of prayer, participating still?
Elijah lives among the ancestors, the descendants and the angels. His stories deserve close attention. We might listen to Elijah-talk as Rabbi Yehudah did—trying to discern its import and impact upon community prayer in a contemporary setting. Does Elijah intend to provoke Rabbi Yehudah, his study partner, with “speculation” about what might happen if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should pray all together?
What a powerful pair of study partners! Elijah moves the ancestors themselves while Rabbi Yehudah seeks their like in the living community. There are powerful, world-changing prayer leaders whom Rabbi Yehudah cannot identify by himself. Without Elijah (who is punished for revealing them), how do we recognize prayer leaders with such special gifts?
The world responds twice to Rabbi Hiyyah, then trembles and hesitates. Are some prayers only a rehearsal, a song until the moment is right? And one more question for now: What would have happened if the prayer community had not been scattered—just in time—by a fiery, bear-of-a-prophet?