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Ki Tissa 5772

Haftarah Parshat Ki Tissa
(1 Kings 18:1-39)
March 10, 2012
16 Adar 5772

Parshat Ki Tisa (1 Kings 18:1-39)

From Mount Moriah where the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) occurred to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where the God revealed Himself to Moses and gave the Torah to Israel, God has manifested His divine presence in the world on mountains. In the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Mount Carmel became the testing ground for the veracity of Elijah’s prophetic relationship with God over that of the false prophets with their deities.

The midrashic tradition has always seemed curious about what qualified a particular individual, place or object for the special role it has been assigned in the biblical tradition. In light of this phenomenon, the following midrashic story attempts to explain why Mount Carmel was chosen as the mountain on which Elijah would test the idolatrous prophets:

Rabbi Natan taught: When the Holy One Blessed be He sought to give the Torah to the children of Israel, [Mount] Carmel came from Aspamea and [Mount] Tabor from Beit Elim. As is said in the Tradition: “As I live, said the King, The Lord of Hosts is His name, surely like Tabor among the mountains, and like Carmel by the sea, so shall he come.” (Jeremiah 46:18) One said: I was called Mount Tabor. It is fitting for God’s Presence to rest upon me since I am higher than all other mountains and the flood did not overwhelm me. The other mountain said: I was called Mount Carmel. God’s Presence should rest on me since I put myself in the midst of the sea so that [the children of Israel] tread upon me as they traversed the sea. The Holy One Blessed be He rejected both of them on account of their arrogance. The mountains responded before God: Are You biased? Will you deprive us of our due? God responded: Since you put yourselves out for the sake of My honor, behold, I give Tabor a role in saving Israel in the time of Deborah and to Mount Carmel [I assign a role] in the salvation of Elijah, as it says: ‘He gathered the prophets on Mount Carmel.” (1 Kings 18:20) (Adapted from an addition to Midrash Tehillim 68:9 Buber ed. p. 318; found in Cambridge Manuscript MS. OR. 786 part 4)

Rabbi Natan learned from a creative reading of a verse from Jeremiah that Mount Carmel and Mount Tabor were extraordinary mountains, each with its own unique qualities. Armed with these special characteristics, each of these mountains demanded from God the honor to be chosen as the mountain upon which the Torah would be given. God denies them the desired honor because of their arrogance. The mountains, however continue to implore God until He accedes to their requests, giving each of them an honored role, albeit, not the one that they had requested.

If we assume that these two mountains indeed possessed stellar qualifications and that each was worthy of a promotion, why did God reject them for the job? According to Rabbi Natan, their arrogance caused them to be overlooked. They were guilty of overselling themselves – for lacking humility. Leadership most certainly requires ego – a healthy sense of self-worth, but too much self-importance has the potential to make a leader serve him or herself rather than the higher purpose, their mission. Mount Sinai is ultimately not important. Nobody knows for sure where it is. Ultimately, it was the Torah which mattered. The lesson learned by Mount Carmel and Mount Tabor is fitting for each of us as well.

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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