For over 15 years now, since I was still working for the Jewish Community in Bucharest, I have been writing weekly Divrei Torah in Romanian for the benefit of the Jews there. It was, I guess, my way of giving back to the community I once belonged to, the community that formed me as an individual.
Writing those materials has not always been easy. There were a few “broken” cycles, where I could not – for various reasons – produce a commentary every week. There were times when I felt like stopping it altogether, especially when I was not living there but rather far away, in New York or here in Montreal. It’s also been hard to write because of my lack of inspiration, my own limitations, especially after a few cycles have passed.
Last year, as we began reading the Torah anew on Simchat Torah, I took on a slightly different enterprise: instead of the parsha, I started writing about the Haftarah. Almost immediately, new challenges arose. The texts sometimes looked rather cryptic, other times they seemed repetitive and hard to digest, and yet other times it was not easy to connect the Haftarah back to the associated parsha.
The Haftarah we read this week is no exception to these rules.
First – we don’t read it very often, and that makes is harder to study in detail. More than half the years, Shabbat Ki Tisa coincides with Shabbat Parah, when we read instead a special portion dedicated to the laws of the red heifer.
Secondly – Ashkenazim begin reading the Haftarah at the beginning of chapter 18 in the Book of Kings, while the Sefaradim skip the first 19 verses altogether and only start with the second part of the story. And this poses a challenge because you have to wonder why that is and also to try and connect the two halves.
Thirdly – the connection to the Torah portion is not so obvious. In the parsha, we begin by discussing מחצית השקל – the half-shekel offering taken from the Jews in order that “no plague come among them when counting them.” (Ex. 30:12) Then, the Torah moves on to describe – in painstaking detail – the episode of the Golden Calf and its tragic aftermath, and finally it concludes with G-d’s gifts to Moses and the Jewish nation: the forgiveness for sin, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the receiving of the Second Tablets.
There seems however to be a disconnect between the first half of the parsha and the second half. What would be, at first glance, the link between the half-a-shekel offering and the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf? Surely none…
But this apparent disconnect is actually mirrored in the Haftarah.
The first half of the Haftarah (read only by Ashkenazim) describes a meeting between Elyiahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) and the prophet Ovadiah who – we learn in the text – is responsible for the saving of a hundred of Hashem’s prophets, persecuted and hunted down by the evil queen Jezebel. The second half of the Haftarah describes in detail the “contest” on Mount Carmel between Elijah the Prophet on one hand, and 450 prophets of Baal. The contest is meant to establish – in the eyes of the Jewish nation – who indeed is the one and true G-d. Again, seemingly no connection between the two halves…
In order to understand this, we have to take a closer look at a very inconspicuous couple of verses at the very end of our Haftarah. After the challenge between Elijah and the false prophets is set, after the offerings are slaughtered and placed on the altars and the 450 false prophets try in vain to get their idol to bring down fire on the altar, after water is poured – at Elijah’s request – over the offering to Hashem in order to make the miracle of divine fire even more obvious, Elijah prays to G-d saying:
Hashem, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! Today it will become known that You G-d are with Israel and that I am Your servant, and that at Your word have I done all these things. Answer me, Hashem, answer me – and let this people know that You are Hashem, the G-d, אחרנית לבם את הסבת ואתה – and You will turn their heart backward. — Kings I 18:36-37
Dozens of commentators have tried to understand these verses. What exactly does Elijah mean when he says that “G-d will turn the heart of the people backward”?
In the Talmud (Tractate Brachot 31a), Rabi Eleazar reads it as a past statement and concludes that Elijah spoke insolently toward G-d, implying it was G‑d’s fault for the fact the people turned to idolatry. “You turned their heart backward” – i.e. You allowed them to become idol worshippers.
A Midrash quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud takes a different, but even more outrageous approach. “You turned the heart backward” actually is a direct threat (or shall we call it blackmail?) to G-d: “If You don’t answer me now” – says Elijah – “I will deny [You] and say that You turned their hearts [to idol worshipping].”
A 12th century commentator known as the Ralbag, Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, takes a similar position. In his view, it was G-d’s constant protection that caused the people to stray. Too much good – he implies – is prone to lead individuals and nations to a life without challenges, which, in turn, makes it easy to turn idolatrous by means of association. People ask themselves: How come I get all this good for nothing? It must be that either I am a G-d myself OR whatever action that goes on around me is bringing about this good. In a time when idol worshipping was the societal norm, that was a very dangerous thing to think and – in the eyes of the Ralbag – that actually led people to believe that all their blessing and wealth came from the idol Baal.
In a very difficult position as a global commentator, Rashi takes the middle approach between the earlier sources. He doesn’t actually point a finger at G-d, but he does say: “You allowed them to turn away from You, it is in Your hands to turn their hearts back to You.”
What do we do with all these statements and accusations? Do we need to start looking for a lawyer for G-d, as “charges” are brought against Him at such intense levels?
What is amazing is that none of this is actually new… From the very heart of our parsha, a similar episode comes to mind. From up on Mount Sinai, G-d sees the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. His answer is swift and harsh. He turns to Moshe (Moses) and says:
I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people! לי הניחה ועתה – And now, let Me be! Let My anger burn against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation. — Ex. 32:10
Moses is quick on the uptake. How can You think about killing them? Remember the Patriarhs. Remember Your promises. Remember the Exodus. What will the nations of the earth say if you destroy them? And finally – just like Elijah centuries later – the final “blows”:
I implore! This people has sinned a great sin and thus made for themselves a god of gold. And now, if You would but bear their sin! – but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written. (Ex. 32:31) If Your Presence does not go with us, don’t bring us onward from here. (Ex. 33:15) Show me Your glory! (Ex. 33:18)
To all that Moses asked on Mount Sinai, G-d acquiesced. Centuries later, He did the same for Elyiahu HaNavi on Mount Carmel.
And this is where the answer to all our questions truly lies: in a relationship that is built on pure love.
Arrogant or not, Elijah was right in asking G-d for a miracle at Carmel. Those were times of crisis, times when the Jews needed reminding who they were and Whom they were serving. At Sinai, Moses had a similar crisis. G-d was angry, but what was more problematic was that He was right to be angry. The Jews had just broken every promise, they fell from the highest top into the lower abyss and nothing short of miraculous was able to save them. The dictum that urges us to “not rely on miracles” (נס על סומכים לא) was temporarily suspended, because people were dying, physically and spiritually.
But in both cases – it was not the righteousness of the requests or the dire circumstances in which they were made that prompted G-d’s positive response. It was that the requests originated in love.
In the Haftarah, it was Ovadiah’s love for Hashem and for his fellow human beings that prompted him to risk his own life to save the hundred prophets of Hashem. In the parsha, it all started with a contribution of half a shekel, G‑d’s way of making sure everyone counts in the relationship with Him and with others. Commentators point out that it was because G-d loved the Jews so much that He repeatedly counted them throughout the Book of Numbers, as well as at the beginning of our parsha. He counted them with half a shekel because He wanted them to stay safe – “so that no plague come among them” (Ex. 30:12) – and so that each person understands that they are only half of a shekel, half of a relationship. The other half is found when we become part of a relationship of love, when we find our bashert, when we engage with another and together we become a whole.
In both cases – after love is established as the true leitmotiv of the story – the relationship gets bumpy and needs fixing. (What relationships don’t really?) And the fix is possible specifically because of the beginning, because the love that started everything simply cannot be ignored. The enormous love Hashem has for us was the fuel that kept it all going.
But equally important was the courage, self-sacrifice and devotion of a few individuals who understood the real power of that love and did not fear to use it for good. One of my Rabbis at the yeshivah – interestingly or fatefully named Rabbi Yaakov Love – once said that Yom Kippur, the day when G‑d forgives our sins is an amazing day. Because G-d does not forgive believing that we will stop sinning, but rather knowing that we will be back next year in front of Him with our sins. He doesn’t forgive because of who we are or what we do, but because He loves us unquestionably, unconditionally and unequivocally.
For love, Moses turned G-d’s words on their head and said: Yes, the Jews are a stiff-necked people, and that is precisely why You should save them, because once You make them Yours they will never really leave You. Yes, they have sinned, but it is You who gave them the ability to sin through the gift of free will, Your greatest gift of love. And now, because You love them and they love You (though they keep forgetting that) – You should continue to lead them from this place on, through the ages of history.
For love, Ovadiah conquered his fears of the establishment and kept the hundred prophets of Hashem in a cave, with bread and water. For love, Elijah “blackmailed” G-d and challenged Him into showing His glory to a nation that did not deserve to witness it. For love, all these individuals did things that were never expected and never fully understood, but which brought about the salvation and consolation we so desperately needed.
And so the pieces of the puzzle come together under the roof of relationship and love.
One of my Rabbis, Rabbi Avi Weiss, once pointed out that the Hebrew word אהבה (love) comes from the Aramaic root הב (hav) – to give. So, what do we give for our loves?
When our relationships falter or when important things are at stake, what do we do? Do we really give our best to fix them, to prevent bad things from happening? Do we sacrifice our time and energy – for real, not just for show – to make it work? Do we go through fire and water to protect and save our brothers and sisters, our loved ones, to shield them from harm? Do we fight for the values we inherited from people we loved in the past or which we miracle when it is discovered in people we know in the present? Do we pass along those values, so that our children can benefit from them as well? Do we raise a prayer (or sometimes even a fist) at G-d to bring about a desperately needed?
Do we truly love? And if the answer is YES, how far are we prepared to go for that?
— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC