Before Moses’ revelation at Mount Sinai came Elijah, whose own revelation serves as a crucial counterpart to the national revelation we celebrate on Shavuot.
The dramatic revelation that took place at Mount Sinai, which we celebrate on Shavuot, is not the only instance of a divine encounter that unfolded at the mountain, also called Horeb. Kings I Chapter 19 tells a strikingly similar story, albeit with a significant difference.
Elijah the Prophet is fleeing for his life. After having killed some 400 prophets of the pagan god Ba’al, he finds himself declared a walking dead man by the wicked queen Izevel and her husband, Achav. The prophet narrowly escapes to the desert and is saved from starvation by the intervention of an angel, who provides him with food and drink. Drawing on the strength provided by that sustenance, Elijah manages to journey 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of Horeb.
There, God thunders: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet responds: “I have been jealous for your sake, O Lord of hosts, for the sons of Israel have abandoned your covenant and killed your prophets by the sword.” God responds by asking Elijah to stand upon the mountain, at which point God will pass before the prophet. There will be a great wind, says God, a tumultuous sound and a fire. Yet My presence is to be found in none of those; it is only located in the kol demama daka, the small, still voice that will follow afterward. Immediately following the incident, God commands Elijah to pass on the mantle of leadership to his disciple Elisha.
The entire story is shrouded in mystery. What exactly does God intend to convey? And why is Elijah effectively replaced following this scene?
Despite these questions, the episode’s parallels to Moses’ revelation on Sinai in the book of Exodus are unmistakable. Elijah’s encounter at Horeb involves dramatic effects, as well as direct communication from God. Elijah miraculously survives for 40 days and 40 nights without food or drink — just as Moses does on the top of the mountain.
And yet the differences are equally obvious: God does not “expect” Elijah at Horeb – indeed, he inquires as to why Elijah has come. It is almost as if Elijah has “surprised” God by showing up unexpectedly. And, as opposed to Sinai, where God’s presence is seemingly manifest in the thunderous fury, here God goes out of his way to stress that He is specifically not found in those effects. Instead, God’s essence is encapsulated by the small, still voice, the kol demama daka. Finally, the audience at each respective revelation is quite different. In the case of Exodus, the entire nation is present. In Kings, it is just the prophet and God.
What, then, is the significance of Elijah’s revelation? What does it teach us about the Sinaitic revelation, and by extension in regard to Shavuot?
The answer begins with a fuller understanding of the message God sought to convey through the kol demama daka: Elijah, you have spent your entire life waging war on behalf of religious values. You have “been jealous” for the sake of Hashem, proudly confronting Jew and gentile alike in the name of God. And your frustration lies precisely in your inability to make meaningful headway toward defeating idolatry.
Ultimately, though, this public conception of religious life misses the mark. Just as God’s essence is not to be found in the thunder or lighting bolt but in the small, still voice, so, too, the heart of religious life is to be found not in the public sphere but in the private recesses of the individual soul. The true prophet of God finds his most profound religious experiences in those intensely personal moments of connection. And if the people are stubborn and resist the message, he is injured but not broken, because in the end his greatest commitments lie within himself.
But Elijah will not understand. He knows no other way. He insists yet again that his calling has been to be jealous on behalf of the Almighty, and that he has failed in that mission. Public life, for the prophet, is everything.
So God finally says, enough. If Elijah is unable to put first things first, he is no longer fit to prophesy. It is time for the protégé to take his place.
Elijah’s revelation serves as a crucial counterpart to the national revelation we celebrate on Shavuot. The events in Exodus involved a national declaration of na’aseh ve-nishma, we shall do and obey. And yet, the story of Elijah reminds us that the truest measure of religious life remains profoundly personal.
May this Shavuot afford us the opportunity to learn God’s lesson — to find a few moments to tune in to the heartbeat of our innermost religious commitments, our kol demama daka.
Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky is Rosh Beit Midrash at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station.