Haftarah Parshat Ki Tisa (1 Kings 18:1-39)
February 27, 2016 / 18 Adar A 5776
It has never been an easy task for a small people living in the midst of much larger civilizations to maintain loyalty to its identity and its ideals. It was as true in the days of Elijah as it is today. Elijah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel who was forced to contend with the syncretistic practices of King Ahab and all those who were swayed by his idolatry. To this end, Elijah arranged a challenge to the idolatrous prophets of Baal so that the people might recognize the power of God over their false gods. After Elijah roundly defeated the prophets of Baal and justified God before the people, they resoundingly affirmed their loyalty to God, shouting forth: “The Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is God.” (18:39)
This declaration meant that the people confirmed that God was the exclusive deity. Some twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the doyen of American poskim (religious decisors) in the 20th century was asked concerning the requisite intention required in reciting the Shema – the declaration of faith which is central to Jewish prayer. In his response, he tends to the question of why the Shema fulfills this role in a way the declaration in the Elijah does not: “And with regard to the meaning of the words, the intention [of the words]: ‘the Lord is our God’ and ‘the Lord is one”, represent two distinctive ideas – One is that the Lord is our God whose sovereignty we have accepted upon ourselves, and the second is that God is one in reality. And it would have been insufficient to say that ‘the Lord is God’, since this is an acknowledgment that He is God over the world that He created and guides. This declaration was necessary at the time of Ahab since he and many others among the ten tribes that he ruled over worshiped idolatry under the influence of his wicked wife, Jezebel, and the multitude of prophets of Baal and the Asherah. And Elijah said to them that he would do something in the presence of the entire people that would convince them to follow the true God and they agreed. And so, when Elijah’s sacrifice was miraculously burnt up by a fire which descended from Heaven, the people recognized that the Lord is God (1 Kings 18:39) … This differs from the obligation entailed by the reading of Shma which inplies that they are believers, the children of believers, who alone know and recognize God and His Torah. And so, everyone has an obligation to accept upon themselves the Sovereignty of God twice, morning and evening, and it would be insufficient to say ‘the Lord is God’, but rather we are obligated to say that the Lord is our God, that is to say, we accept upon ourselves His sovereignty.” (adapted from Igrot Moshe Orah Hayim 5:5b)
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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