Haftarah Parashat Ki Tissa
March 3, 2018 | 16 Adar 5778
1 Kings 18:1-39
Since its very beginnings, the Jewish tradition has had to struggle against idolatry. It might even be said that the real “original sin” for Jews was not to be found in the story of Adam and Eve but rather in the sin of the Golden Calf where the people betrayed God soon after the events of Mount Sinai. The struggle over loyalty to one’s intrinsic identity vs. the pull of the outside world is, in fact, a major element of Jewish identity. It was true in Moses’ day, it was true in the days of Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet), and it is equally true today.
Eliyahu Hanavi, not unlike Moses, stood up against the forces of assimilation. It was he who decided to face down the idolatrous prophets of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel when they threatened to overtake belief in God. He fashioned a miraculous test on Mount Carmel that would route the people’s attachment to Baal, a foreign deity. He invited the foreign prophets to a challenge: “Let them place before us two bulls and let them choose a bull, cut it up and place on the wood without putting fire and I will do [the same] for the other bull and I will put it on the wood and I [also] will put no fire. And you call in the name of your god and I will call in the name of the Lord and the one who answers with fire, he will be God.” (23-24)
A midrash reports on the behind the scenes action: “What did Eliyahu do? He said to them: ‘Choose for yourselves two twin bulls from the same mother, who grew up in the same stall. They cast lots on them, one for God and one for Baal. Eliyahu’s bull followed him immediately but the bull for Baal could not be budged by Baal’s worshippers, until Eliyahu said to it: ‘Go with them.’ The bull replied: ‘I and my fellow [bull] came from the same womb, we grew up together. He is sacrificed to God and God’s name is sanctified through him and I am offered to Baal, to anger My Creator. Eliyahu said to it: ‘Go with them. Don’t cause a scene. Just as that bull will sanctify God, so will you.’ The bull replied: ‘I will go only if you hand me over to them.'” (adapted from Tanhuma Masei 8)
What are we to make of this talking bull and its rejection of being offered as a sacrifice to idolatry? It is intended as a subtle reminder that if an animal is capable of loyalty to God, maybe we should be equally capable. In our day, the image of the loyal bull may not be so relatable, but we are very aware of the immense loyalty of our pets, a loyalty we reciprocate with great love and care. Perhaps this text suggests that even our pets can inspire us to deepen our spiritual practice as God’s servants.
For Discussion: What in the relationship of pet and master “works” as a model for how humans should relate to God? What about it does not work?
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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