What is a Prophet?

by Rabbi M. Kripke
It is no accident that at the Seder table each year, the child sees a special cup for Elijah, who, it is said, visits every Seder table. It is no accident that Legend has Elijah always on hands, generation after generation, as the friend and helper of the poor. It is no accident, for already in the Bible itself Elijah is a legend. He is assigned special tasks, for he is a special prophet. That is to say, a special messenger of his God.
We meet Elijah in our Haftarah, supporting the lesson of our Sidrah. In this Sidrah, following the instructions for the final appurtenances of the portable Sanctuary of the Wilderness, there is the violent interruption of the story of the golden calf. What prompted this apostasy? What could have got into a people still hearing the echoes of the Ten Commandments? But Commandments or no, there stands the golden calf, shocking, vivid testimony to the difficulty of remaining faithful to an unseen god, of remaining loyal to principle when innumerable allurements are at hand.
Many centuries later Elijah appears., suddenly, unheralded, in the Kingdom of Israel. It is the time of the reign of a strong, aggressive King, Ahab. But there was apostasy in the land. There was a pleasing flirtation with the alluring nature gods of the Canaanites. Was it not they who were responsible for the gifts of farm and field, orchard and herd and flock? The people were seduced by Ahab’s Canaanite wife, the infamous Jezebel, and her large staff of priest-prophets.
It is against all of these that Elijah appears in our Haftarah, against King and Queen, against the Baal priests, against the backsliding people. And in the dramatic confrontation in our Haftarah, Elijah conquered. The people end the encounter throroughly convinced, chanting: “The Lord, He is God.”
Elijah is a paradigm of the Biblical prophets. He is in no one’s employ, save the Lord alone. He has no official position, and does not serve at the pleasure of the king, nor eat at his table. He delivers God’s message. It costs him comfort and honor and peace of mind. It may even cost him his life. But if a lion roars, as Amos put it, shall one not stand in awe? If the Lord bids him, shall the prophet not rise to his duty?