Parshat Ki Tissa
(1 Kings 18:1-39)
17 Adar I 5768
February 23, 2008
James Kugel, in his latest book, \”How to Read the Bible\”, notes that some scholars hold that in the northern kingdom, Israel, Baal and the God of Israel were worshipped in tandem and that the average person saw nothing wrong with this syncretism. The stern prophet Elijah, however, was a zealot and would have nothing of this sort of religious chicanery. (p. 526) The confrontation between Elijah and the citizenry over this offense was inevitable: \”Elijah approached all of the people and said: \’How long will you keep hopping between two opinions (poshim bein shnei seipim)? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him?\’\” (verse 21)
The metaphor used by Elijah literally means to \”hop between two branches\”. When Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of the prophets, translated this phrase, it ignored this image entirely and translated the word \”seipim\” as \”groups\”: \”And Elijah approached all of the people and he said: \’How long will you be split into two groups. If the Lord is God, worship before Him alone; and why do you plead after Baal for whom there is no need and who does not answer the people\’s prayers.\’\” Similarly, Rashi translated \”seipim\” as \”two thoughts\”: \”for you are not able to discern in order to decide who is God.\”
Other interpreters sought particular meaning in Elijah\’s metaphor. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) adopted Rashi\’s explanation but elaborated, paying closer attention to the metaphor: \”[It is like person who] hops on both feet. For one who hops on one foot, inclines toward one foot, but one who hops on both feet, has no idea on which foot he will stand – for you are unable to discern who is God. And if you should say that they seem to lean toward the Baal, it says that after they saw that the rain ceased at Elijah\’s behest, they inclined toward God. At that point, the prophets of Baal claimed that this happened only because they were prevented from worshipping Baal who would otherwise do well for the people. This is why the people were unable to decide. This was the reason for Elijah\’s test…\”
While Kimche left Israel hopping on both feet unable to decide, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (14th century France) has them wavering between each of their feet. In the process, he describes his analysis of the religious psychology of the idolater: \”Someone who hops sometimes leans on one foot and sometimes on the other foot, so too, Israel equivocated between the two positions. Sometimes they believed in God alone and sometimes they thought that Baal was god. What prompted them to show interest in Baal? I can only speculate. They probably made an image, which they imagined to have the power over the people and the weather. The priests of Baal would do certain acts, and they thought that their magic would have influence over Baal who would carry out their will.\”
Rabbi Joseph Kaspi (14th century France) relies most on the metaphor to describe the nation\’s religious equivocation: \”This is how one climbs a tree: Since the branches of the tree are not strong enough to lean one\’s feet upon them, because the branches bend under their weight, a person puts a foot on one branch and his other foot on another branch, shifting his weight from one branch to the other, until he looks like he is hopping on both feet, one moment on the right and one moment on the left. So it appeared with their beliefs. Their foolishness and naïveté overcame them. There is adequate evidence of this in our day that it was foolishness and not wickedness that overcame them.
The common element in all of these explanations of Elijah\’s metaphor is the attempt to describe someone who cannot find firm footing for their feet: one cannot find ground for his feet at all, the others hip hop from foot to foot. Somehow these descriptions tragically capture the existential situation of many Jews today. Despite being a part of a tradition with significant answers to life\’s important questions, they suffer from not knowing how to put their feet on terra firma – firm ground, always wondering whether others have better answers. Perhaps this is the tragic dilemma of being a minority people. Perhaps this is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. One thing is certain. We know how Eliahu HaNavi – Elijah the prophet would answer this question!
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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