Haftarah Parshat Ki Tissa
(1 Kings 18:1-39)
February 19, 2011
15 Adar I, 5771
Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal was quite dramatic. He gathered together these prophets along with an audience of the children of Israel to test the effectiveness of the God of Israel against the false god, Baal, so that the people might abandon their allegiance to Baal. He asked the idolatrous prophets to set up a sacrifice to their god. He set up an identical sacrifice to God. Each of them would offer a similar plea to his deity. The deity which would consume its sacrifice by fire would be proven to be the true God. The prophets of Baal offered up this pray to their god: “O Baal, answer us!” (26) Their plea was left unanswered. After this failed attempt, Elijah called the people over to his sacrifice. He offered his plea to the God of Israel: “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that the people may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts backward (hasibota et libam ahoranit) .” (36-37)
What did Elijah mean when he said to God “for You have turned their hearts backward”? This plaint has perplexed commentators throughout the ages. One Talmudic sage saw this as a challenge to God: “And said Rabbi Elazar: ‘Elijah insolently challenged God, ‘You turned their hearts backward’, namely, You gave them the opportunity to turn from You.’ (Berachot 31a) The Talmud Yerushalmi offers an even bolder challenge: “[Elijah said:] ‘If You do not answer me, I will also reject You.’” (Sanhedrin 10:1) Rashi moderated these challenges but nevertheless states boldly: “You gave them the opportunity to turn away from You, it is in Your hands to restore their hearts to You.”
Rabbi Levi ben Gershom also saw Elijah’s words as a challenge to God, but of a different sort. He asserted that since God provided for the people’s needs abundantly in this world, He needed to make it clear to them that the blessings came from Him. Instead the people falsely attributed these blessings to Baal.
On the other hand, Rabbi Saadia Gaon turned this verse on its head. He interpreted it to mean, that since the people had turned away from God [on their own], God must cause them to turn back to Him. Maimonides had a novel interpretation which was in line with his explanation of why God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in the Exodus story. He claimed that because the people had become habitual sinners, God caused them to become “stuck” in their sinful ways in order that their punishment should be more severe. (Mishneh Torah Laws of Repentance 6:3)
It has become clear that the sages were not certain whether responsibility for human wrongdoing was in God’s hands or in human hands. In either case, Elijah wanted God to convince His people to recognize Him and mend their ways. Ultimately, the human response to God is the greatest miracle of all!
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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