Where are you running to? (Shabbos 35)
During the time of King Achav, the Israelite nation was steeped in the sins of immorality and idolatry. Trends, such as Baal worship had taken their grip on society, and prophets like Eliyahu often felt like they were fighting a losing battle. Nevertheless, on one occasion, Eliyahu was able to demonstrate to the people the power of the true God.
Standing atop Mt. Carmel, facing down the idolatrous prophets of the Baal, Eliyahu declared, ‘Let us each pray to our god and see which is the true deity.’ The idolaters built an altar and Eliyahu built an altar. They offered a sacrifice and he offered a sacrifice. They prayed to their gods all day long. But there was, of course, no response. Eliyahu then doused his sacrifice in water and prayed to Hashem. A fire descended and consumed the holy offering. The people cried out, “Hashem is the God! Hashem is the God!” And Eliyahu felt vindicated. Finally, he could relax. He had won the spiritual battle.
But, no sooner had he claimed victory than the wicked king sought to execute him. He ran away and hid in a cave, feeling emotionally and psychologically battered and bruised. The word of Hashem came to him and said, “Go out of the cave and stand on the mountain.” Hashem then passed by, accompanied by a “great and powerful wind, smashing mountains and breaking rocks.” This was followed by an earthquake. After that came a terrifying fire. Finally, a still, thin voice emerged, and asked, “Why are you here, Eliyahu?”
רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אוֹמֵר כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּהַלֵּךְ אָדָם מִשֶּׁתִּשְׁקַע הַחַמָּה חֲצִי מִיל. אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: הָרוֹצֶה לֵידַע שִׁיעוּרוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה יַנִּיחַ חַמָּה בְּרֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל וְיֵרֵד וְיִטְבּוֹל בַּיָּם וְיַעֲלֶה — וְזֶהוּ שִׁיעוּרוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה. אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא: הָרוֹצֶה לִרְאוֹת בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם יַעֲלֶה לְרֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל וְיִצְפֶּה וְיִרְאֶה כְּמִין כְּבָרָה בַּיָּם — וְזוֹ הִיא בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם. אָמַר רַב: מַעְיָן הַמִּיטַּלְטֵל טָהוֹר — וְזֶהוּ בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם.
Rabbi Necḥemia says: The duration of twilight is the time it takes for a person to walk half a mil after the sun sets. Rabbi Chanina said: One who wants to know the precise measure of Rabbi Necḥemia’s twilight should do the following: Leave the sun at the top of Mount Carmel and descend and immerse himself in the sea, and emerge, and that is Rabbi Necḥemia’s measure. Rabbi Chiya said: One who wants to see Miriam’s well should climb to the top of Mount Carmel and look out, and he will see a rock that looks like a sieve in the sea, and that is Miriam’s well. Rav said: A spring that is portable purifies. And what is a movable spring? It is Miriam’s well.
A fellow is standing on Mt. Carmel and wants to understand Rabbi Nechemia’s measurement of the twilight period between sunset and nightfall. Rabbi Chanina’s instructions are to run down the mountain, go to the mikvah, and run back up. That’s the length of twilight. But let’s start with this question: Why is this individual running down the mountain to immerse himself just as the sun is about to set? It would appear that he is racing against the clock, as he seeks to purify himself.
The Torah states (Lev.22:4-7), “If a man should come from the offspring of Aharon . . . who touches any impurity . . . he may not eat holy food unless he immerses himself in water. Then the sun will set and he is purified.” The Gemara (Brachos 2a) demonstrates that when the verse references the setting of the sun, the period of sunset is only completed at nightfall. This fellow wants to immerse himself while it is yet day. And so he runs down the mountain to find a mikvah. Rabbi Nechemia teaches that by the time he immerses and ‘ascends’ the mountain, it will be night-time.
But what if he could achieve purity simply by staying put? What if he could connect with his Heavenly source by simply contemplating the Divine? Rabbi Chiya teaches that it is possible to sit atop Mt. Carmel and gaze out into the distance. If one merits to see the Well of Miriam, he won’t need to run anywhere. Miriam’s Well is not just potable, it’s portable. It can “come to the mountain,” without you going anywhere.
How do you recognize Miriam’s Well? It looks like a sieve. The Melitzei Aish explains that the purpose of a sieve is to remove the impurities from the pure substance. That’s how we must view our personal character refinement. We all have areas of our character that require refinement and perfection. We must sift out those elements of our character that are improper and impeding our ability to be our very best.
What is impurity? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch demonstrates (Lev.7:20) that the word ‘tumah’ (impurity) derives from a word-family that relates to a lack of freedom. A corpse is impure, because without the soul, it can no longer make moral choices and accomplish feats of physical or spiritual achievement. It thus becomes ‘tamei’ or freedom-less.
If you were to ask the average person when they feel the freest, presumably they would tell you on the weekend or when they go on holiday. During these periods, they no longer need to run around. They can stop, take a time out, and breathe. Rabbi Chiya teaches that freedom is attained, not by running down the mountain looking for a mikvah, but by staying put, taking a deep breath, and embarking on a process of introspection to sift out the impurities within one’s character.
Mt. Carmel represents the ability to connect to Hashem, any place, any time. The Prophet Eliyahu would ordinarily have been forbidden to offer a sacrifice anywhere outside the Holy Temple. He decided that the occasion called for an exception to the rule. In order to show the people the truth of the Torah, he would have to enter the showdown with the prophets of the Baal. By pouring water upon his offering, he demonstrated to them that connection to Heaven knows no bounds. The true God is not restricted by time, place, or physical constraints such as a wet sacrifice.
After Miriam’s passing, her Well disappeared. When Hashem revealed the secret of the portable Well to Moshe, he missed an important element of how it works. The Melitzei Aish writes that Carmel is a combination of two words: ‘rach’ meaning ‘soft’ and ‘malle’ meaning ‘full,’ and explains that Miriam was full of mitzvos and soft of character. In order for the Well or rock to issue water, one needed patience, tranquillity, and calmness of spirit. With hundreds of thousands of thirsty Israelites clamouring to soothe their parched mouths, Moshe was unable to maintain such a cool composure.
Our Sages tell us that when he was unsuccessful in his attempt to extract water from one rock, he tried another. But, of course, the idea that if only he were to hit the rock hard enough, or hit the right rock, he would be able to extract water is absurd. Water doesn’t come from rocks. Water doesn’t come from movable wells. Water comes from Hashem. When we come to terms with this reality, there’s no longer any need to run up and down. We simply need to stay atop the mountain, turn our eyes Heavenward and commit to becoming more refined, spiritual individuals. As long as we’ve made our basic efforts, God will do the rest.
For most of us, life is about non-stop running, as we pursue the dreams of success that we’ve envisioned for our lives. Where are we running to? Where’s the final destination? What’s the ‘purification’ we’re seeking? Unless we stop to contemplate these questions, we’ll never know what the destination even looks like. Life will be non-stop running up and down the mountain, when all we had to do was stop to smell the roses atop the mountain, gaze out yonder, and welcome the Well of Miriam into our lives.
Periodically in life, you need to take a time out to reassess where you are running to. As Hashem showed Eliyahu, it’s not about storms, earthquakes, and fires. It’s about asking, “Why are you here, Eliyahu?” What do you want out of life? Do you need to run to the ends of the Earth to find it or is it within you? May you achieve freedom and tranquillity from the never-ending stresses of this world!