Blog: February 2022

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Ki Tisa: haftarah

Shabbat's torah portion was Ki Tisa, which includes the episode of the golden calf. For those who don't know, each torah portion has an associated haftarah from some other part of the Hebrew bible that is thematically connected (because Roman persecution, originally). The haftarah for Ki Tisa is the passage from 1 Kings 18 about Eliyahu and the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel.

I gave approximately the following introduction before reading the haftarah on Saturday.

There is a famous story in the talmud where one rabbi is arguing against all of the others on a point of law. When he can't convince them with logic, he starts calling on miraculous testimony: if I'm right let that tree prove it, he says, and the tree gets up and walks across the courtyard. The rabbis respond: we don't learn law from trees. Ok, if I'm right then let that stream prove it, and the stream runs backwards. We don't learn law from streams, they answer. Finally a voice from heaven confirms he's right -- and the rabbis answer, lo bashamayim hi, the torah is not in heaven. That is, God gave us the torah and the responsibility to interpret it, and we don't listen to heavenly voices.

The story is funny (and on Saturday most people laughed). Or rather, it's funny if you stop there, which most tellings do. But if you keep reading, the story takes a darker turn; this argument leads to much death and destruction. And if you back up to the mishna that prompted all this discussion in the g'mara, you'll find there's a larger point to the story. It's not really about an oven.

The story of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel makes me think of this talmudic story. We love the Eliyahu story, full of daring and chutzpah and the defeat of Ba'al and the people finally seeming to acknowledge God. It's a great story! But when we read haftarot, excerpts from the rest of Tanakh, it's easy to miss context.

The next thing that happens after this is that Eliyahu kills the 450 prophets of Ba'al, the bad king's bad wife threatens him, and he flees into the wilderness and a different haftarah. Eliyahu's in the wilderness, God sends a messenger to feed him so he won't die, and he finds his way to the cave where God asks him: why are you here, Eliyahu? Eliyahu answers that he has been zealous for God, the people have rejected God and slain all the prophets, and they want to kill him too. God then sends an earthquake (but God was not in the earthquake), a fire (but God wasn't there either), and a wind (ditto), and finally Eliyahu finds God in the still small voice.

God then asks again, why are you here Eliyahu? And Eliyahu gives the exact same answer, word for word. God tells him to go back and appoint Elisha as his successor (among other things).

Eliyahu doesn't exit the story at this point; he's still around as a prophet. But it feels to me like this encounter was a pivotal moment, set in motion by the showdown with Ba'al. It feels to me like Eliyahu was supposed to learn something from the encounter, about how the still small voice can be more powerful than the earthquake and fire -- that these encounters were supposed to change Eliyahu. I would expect a changed Eliyahu to give a different answer the second time God asked the question. It feels like a missed opportunity for a stronger relationship with God -- like Eliyahu failed a test.

I still love the story of Mount Carmel, but knowing what comes after casts the story in a different light for me, like reading on in the talmud changed my understanding of the rabbis and the voice from heaven.