Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ki Tisa-Parah (Haftarah)

Elijah on Mount Carmel

The regular haftarah for Shabbat Ki Tisa portrays the famous confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. The connection to the Torah portion is clear: the prophet’s heroic struggle against idolatry parallels that of Moses against the Golden Calf. There are two different customs about this reading: the Sephardim only read the story of the confrontation itself, in 1 Kings 18:20-39; while the Ashkenazim begin from the beginning of the chapter, thus incorporating the rather interesting incident involving Ahab, Obadiah and Elijah.

The background to the story—indeed, of all the Elijah stories—is the reign of King Ahab, the militarily successful and wealthy king of Israel who built the royal capital at Samaria but, perhaps more than any other Israelite king, openly rejected the religion of Israel. With the encouragement of his Sidonite wife Jezebel, he fostered the worship of Baal, and while actively persecuting the priests and prophets of the Lord. Our chapter opens during a period of drought, that had already lasted for three years, which was in punishment of the people for their abandonment of the ways of God. Ahab sends his assistant Obadiah to search for vegetation to feed to the livestock; on the way, he encounters Elijah, who had been sent by God to confront Ahab.

An interesting conversation ensues: Elijah asks to be taken to see the king, but Obadiah replies that he fears that Elijah will disappear en route, and the king will punish him for it: we know that you’re a slippery character, and you’re constantly disappearing, as if carried off by a mysterious wind (vv. 10-12). This time, Elijah promises to in fact go to the king. Perhaps this is the origin of the well-known image of Elijah in Jewish folk-legend: he is the figure who mysteriously appears and disappears unexpectedly. As generations of Jewish children have been taught, he visits every Seder to drink of his cup; he is present at every brit, at every circumcision; and, most of all, he is the mysterious stranger of countless folk tales: a beggar, a vagabond, a stranger dressed in rags, who turns out to be the bearer of timely messages and blessings from Heaven. This seems to fit the description of Elijah as a lonely figure, dressed in a rude loincloth, who appears before King Ahab out of nowhere to inform him that there will be no rain “save by my word,” and who then goes to live in the wilderness, far from human habitation, in a river-bed near the Jordan where he is fed by ravens (17:1-7).

The usage here of the term nevi’im, “prophets,” is also interesting. As we alluded to in passing last week in our discussion of Saul, there were bands of itinerant prophets who were prophets, not in the later sense of bearing well-articulated, morally oriented messages from God to the people, but in the sense of wandering mystics or devotees of ecstatic praxis. The term is in fact also used of devotees of false gods: thus, there are “prophets of Baal“ and “the prophets of Asherah” (v. 19), who are more like priests. (This, contrary to the conventional wisdom which draws a dichotomy between “priestly” and “prophetic” religion, functions, etc. Indeed, Elijah himself functions here in both “priestly” and “prophetic” roles.) Ahab had destroyed all the prophets of the Lord, until Elijah alone was left (v. 22); at some stage Obadiah had hidden and protected one hundred prophets, but we aren’t told what happened to them. Millennia later, the term is used in a similar way of Abraham Abulafia’s “Prophetic Kabbalah.”

The heart of the chapter lies in the test to show whether or not the God of Israel is the true God or not. A contest is set up between Baal and the Lord: the prophets of each are to offer up a bullock, and the one that is accepted—that is, consumed by fire coming down from heaven—will be proven to be the true God.

There are several interesting points to this description. Elijah allows the priests of Elijah to go first, and they have almost the entire day to “prove” the validity of their god. Elijah eggs them on with dripping sarcasm: “Shout louder! Perhaps he’s on a journey, or musing, or conversing, or sleeping!” (v. 27), until they work themselves into a frenzy, cutting themselves ‘till they bleed.

Verse 30 describes Elijah “healing the ruined altar of the Lord”—as if to say that the predominance of idolatrous worship had physically damaged the altar of the true God. (Although, interestingly, the altar on Mount Carmel was in any event a temporary, makeshift altar, quite distinct from that at the Temple in Jerusalem; indeed, the Talmudic Sages pondered the question as to how Elijah was allowed to offer sacrifices outside of the Temple altogether, concluding that it was an “emergency ruling,” necessary so as to combat the frontal attack on Israelite faith by the Baalists; see Rambam, Mamrim 2.4 and Radbaz there. Or perhaps these rules were observed more loosely in those days, particularly in the Northern kingdom, even by God-fearing people.) This altar was itself made by placing together twelve stones, symbolic of the twelve tribes—perhaps an imitation of Jacob’s action at Beth-el.

There is a great poignancy of Elijah being totally alone against these 850 pagan prophets, as there is in the simplicity of his own prayer. After dousing the altar, the sacrifice, the wood, and its surroundings with buckets of water, already late in the afternoon, he utters a few brief words: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, let this people know today that you are God and I am your prophet” (vv. 36-37). He is immediately answered, and the people shout out, “The Lord is God, the Lord is God” (v. 39). On this dramatic note (used also liturgically at the very end of Yom Kippur) the haftarah ends.

The closing verses of the chapter, which were omitted by the canonizers of the haftarah traditions, describe, first, the mass slaughter of the defeated priests of Baal; and, second, another kind of response to Elijah’s prayer. The drought comes to an abrupt end: a small cloud, the size of a man’s fist, appears far off over the Mediterranean; before Ahab and his cohorts can climb down the hill, the skies darken, and intense rain falls. As a true prophet, Elijah holds “the keys of rainfall.”

“And I shall pour upon you pure water and you shall be pure”

This year, the haftarah actually read on this Shabbat is that for Parshat Parah: Ezekiel 36:15-38 (the Sephardim stop at v. 36). The special maftir read this Shabbat from Numbers 19 concerns the procedure for the preparation of the red heifer and its ashes: the theme of purity and impurity in its concrete, physical sense. The haftarah is in turn concerned with purity in a more metaphorical, spiritual sense, thus making a particularly appropriate complement to the Torah lesson. The section opens with God expelling Israel from their land for the acts of impurity they have performed on it, judging them for the blood they have spilled and the abominations they have performed. But the very act of sending them into exile engenders an internal Divine dynamic, causing Him to restore them to the land, “not for their own sake” (v. 22; cf. also 32), but for the sake of His own holy name, which is “profaned among the nations.” “And I took pity upon my holy name…” (v. 21; see also vv. 22-23).

This is very different from other prophets, such as Isaiah, who always describe this Divine dialectic in more emotive, relational terms, moving between anger and compassion. Thus Isaiah 54:7-8: “With sudden rage I hid my face from you for a little moment, but with great mercies I shall ingather you” (see HY II: Noah). Elsewhere in Isaiah, in Jeremiah and in Hosea, the prophets speak of God’s great love for Israel, making exile and other acts of Divine retribution as something like a lovers’ spat, which inevitably ends in reconciliation. Or else, as in the Torah itself, they are accepted back because they repented, they did teshuvah (Deut 30:1-10).

In any event, our haftarah continues with a powerful description of how, since they are being restored to the land, God will purify the people so as to enable them to be deserving to live in the land. There are three stages: “I shall pour upon you pure water and you shall be purified” (v. 25); “I shall give you a new heart and a new spirit” (v. 26); “I shall place my spirit within you” (v. 27). These spiritual gifts are in turn followed by God providing them with material needs and blessing (vv. 29-30).

Ezekiel’s overall image seems much sterner and stricter than that of the other prophets. He is concerned, first and foremost, with God’s holiness and purity; his constant theme is that the people must live up to the ideal of being God’s people, without any measure of compassion for human weakness. Even in the more pathetic passages, such as Chapter 16, where God passes by and adopts Israel, shown as a poor, abandoned orphan, one does not feel that he is conveying a message of real divine love. (This stands out in particularly bold relief this year, when it coincides with the reading of Ki Tisa, and the message of Divine compassion in the Thirteen Qualities that form its heart.) Perhaps this is so because he lives on another plane, of what we would call mystical experience, totally absorbed in the Divine holiness and the demands that implies. There is an intensity, almost a ferocity to Ezekiel’s character: like Moses in his moments of zeal, but even more so.

And a final question: what are we to make of the closing two verses (36:37-38), which speak repeatedly of the house of Israel as a “flock”: tzon adam (“a flock of men”); tzon qodashim (“a holy flock”); tzon Yerushalayim (“the flock of Jerusalem”).


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