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Haftarah Parshat Ki Tissa

Haftarah Parshat Ki Tissa (1 Kings 18:1-39)
March 7, 2015 / 16 Adar 5775

The Prophet Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal and Asherah was a battle over the hearts of the people of the northern kingdom who were drawn to the cult of these competing deities. He wanted to prove to them that the worship of these gods was illusory and so chose to challenge the prophets of these gods to prove themselves in a miraculous sacrificial offering on Mount Carmel where the competing deities would have to consume a sacrificial offering by sending fire from the heavens. As part of this event, Elijah provided identical sacrificial bulls for both his own sacrifice and that of the idolaters. The results of this “event” are known. God sends fire to consume the sacrifice offered to him while that of the idolater’s remained untouched.

The following midrash adds further color to the event, “recording” a conversation between Elijah and the bull which had been chosen for the idolatrous sacrifice:  “What is meant by the verse: ‘Who teaches us by means of the beasts of the earth, and makes us wise by means of the fowls of heaven (Job 35:11)? The Holy One, blessed Be He tells Israel: Learn a lesson from Elijah’s bull. When Elijah said to the worshippers of Baal: ‘Choose a bull for yourselves, and dress it first; for you are many’ (I Kings 18:25), the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of the Asherah gathered round but could not force the bull to budge. What is written regarding this: ‘Let them therefore give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under; and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it over the wood, and put no fire under’ (verse 23). What did Elijah do? He said to them: ‘Select two bulls, equal in all respects, coming from the same mother and reared on the same pasture, then cast lots for them, one to be for the Lord and one for Baal, and choose for yourselves one bull.’ Elijah’s bull followed him immediately, while the bull assigned to Baal, though all the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the Asherah gathered round it, could not be moved. At last Elijah began to speak to it and said to it: ‘ Go with them! ‘The bull replied by saying to him in the presence of all the people: ‘My fellow bull and I have both come from the same womb, from the same cow, and have grown up on the same pasture, yet he gets to be offered before God and the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is sanctified by him, while I will be offered to Baal and will anger my Creator!’ Elijah said to it: ‘Bull, bull, fear not! Go with them and let them not find any excuse for their failure. Indeed, even as the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, shall be sanctified by means of the bull that is with me, so will it be sanctified through you!’ The bull answered him: ‘Seeing that you give me such advice, I swear that I will not budge from this spot until you personally hand me over into their hands!’ As it says: ‘And they took the bull which he gave them (verse 26)’.Who gave it them? Elijah. And you can infer this from the fact that Elijah said to them: ’Let them therefore give us two bulls, ‘ and then again he told them: ’Choose one bull and dress it first,’ while finally it is written: ’And they took the bull which he gave them.’ For the above reasons it is written, ’Who teaches us by means of the beasts of the earth.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Learn a lesson from the bull of Elijah and do not turn to the idols to gaze upon them.’” (adapted from Tanhuma Buber Masei 6, pp. 164-5)

For a minority people like the Jews, destructive syncretism seemingly raised its head in every generation. The answer of this midrash is that even the beasts of the earth know better.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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