If you like action, then head to shul this weekend. The combined drama of the Torah and Haftarah readings from Ki Tissa this Shabbat is nothing short of epic. The parasha describes the events of the Golden Calf, and the Haftarah from Kings I tells the story of the dramatic confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
The Golden Calf is a story for all time. The Children of Israel are still at Mount Sinai forty days after Moses ascended. With the words of the Ten Commandments, the laws of Mishpatim, and the instructions about the construction of the mishkan fresh in their minds, they have a sudden and catastrophic collective failure of judgment. Without Moses, and without God (seemingly), they forget all of the instruction they received, and task Aaron with making for them a new god to worship. You all know what happens next.
Flashing forward about six hundred years, the Haftarah brings us to a time of turmoil. Israel is under the sway of feeble King Ahab and his wicked Phoenician wife, Jezebel, who had promoted the worship of Baal and other pagan gods, while at the same time killing off loyal prophets to God. Elijah the prophet enters the scene, withholding rainfall from Israel as a punishment and traveling around the countryside performing miracles like bringing children back from the dead and bringing food forth from empty vessels. Confronting Ahab, he arranges a battle of gods on Mount Carmel.
Elijah then meets 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah on the mountain (you can visit the purported site of the battle by visiting the beautiful monastery at Muhraka). After the priests call out to Baal all morning, gashing themselves with the hopes of generating a response, Elijah sets up his altar and God delivers a powerful message, sending a fire that consumes the offering, wood, stones, earth, and water.
As I reflect on these readings, and teach these writings in my classes, the following question inevitably comes up:
Did it really happen?
To which I always respond:
Does it really matter? Not really.
Biblical “history” is perpetually debatable. Not one person alive knows what happened on the Sinai Peninsula 3400 years ago, nor do we know what happened on Mount Carmel 2900 years ago; all we do know for sure is that we do have a book that tells us what happened, to which we ascribe differing degrees of validity.
The corpus of sacred literature that we inherited, whether or not you accept is at fact, fiction, legend, history, or memory, is our inheritance. And with that inheritance we have a very specific task: in the words of the Sh’ma, vishinantam levanecha– “you shall teach them (the words) to your children.”
Did God reveal the commandments to Moses on Sinai? Did Jacob wrestle with an angel? Did Samson pull down the temple of the Philistines? Did God show Ezekiel the valley of the dry bones or place a divine being in the fiery furnace with Daniel and his friends? Can any of us say definitively “yes” or “no”? Excluding those of us with perfect faith from answering, no doubt many of you have had these thoughts and struggle with what to do with the tradition and the stories we have inherited.
For me, the words of the Torah and Haftarah this week have special meaning, as I commemorate the twentieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. Both stories remain relevant and problematic for me twenty years after the fact; I remember reading them at 13 with wonder and youthful naivete, and now approach them with the experiences of the past twenty years firmly in hand.
Time will undoubtedly not provide me with any certainty about these texts. But that’s OK. I embrace them as a part of my personal inheritance and as an indispensable aspect of the Jewish tradition, and will proudly fulfill the mitzvah of vishinantam levanecha as I teach both my children and my students the same words that I learned not so long ago.