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Parashat Ki Tissa

February 20, 2008

Parashat Ki Tissa
By Suri Krieger

Moses had a double! That’s right. Moses was not the only prophet to part the waters, or to experience a Revelation on Mt. Sinai, or to have a highly unusual end-of life occurrence. Granted, our first and foremost prophet earned his reputation with miracles and fireworks. But so did his double, Elijah the Prophet. Elijah is the only other prophet who comes close to facilitating miracles on the scale of grandeur associated with Moses.

Is Elijah really a double Moses? Look at the similarities:

He really did part the waters. Just before he is carried up in a chariot to the heavens, he lifts his mantel and the waters of the Jordan River part for Elisha (his successor) and himself to pass through. That mantle is to Elijah what the staff is to Moses.

Elijah walks 40 days and nights until he reaches Har Horev, another name for Mt. Sinai, whereupon he ascends the very same mountain upon which Moses received the Revelation. Elijah has his own intimate revelatory encounter with God, after spending the night b’-me`arah, which Rashi claims is that same cleft of rock in which Moses hid his face before God. Wind, earthquake, fire present themselves in some form to both prophets, although we are told that for Elijah, God is not in any of these . . . until the still small voice, addresses him directly, as it does Moses.

The similarities between Moses and Elijah as exemplary prophets abound. But so also do the frustrations and challenges met by both, particularly in the area of idolatrous worship. It is in this context that the Parashat Ki Tissa is paired with the Haftarah from I Kings 18. Moses finds himself confronting a golden calf, the first of many instances of such transgressions.

Elijah, a few centuries later, is commissioned by God to confront the pervasive Baal worship that has gripped the land under the influence of Ahab’s Phoenician queen, Jezebel. He challenges Ahab to a duel of the prophets – himself against 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, on top of Mt. Carmel, in the presence of all Israel. The drama which ensues is every bit as spectacular as the events of Sinai. Two bulls are prepared for sacrifice. Each prophet will call upon his deity to ignite the sacrifice. Whichever deity responds with fire would be deemed the true God of Israel. All is prepared; Baal is called upon by his prophets with great fervor, with shouts, with raving, with dancing, even lacerations to the body. But there is no response. Then Elijah, like a truly theatrical magician, sets further challenges to extol God’s miraculous capacity, by dousing his bull with water and filling a trench around the sacrificial altar with water. When Elijah calls out to Adonai, fire descends and consumes the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, the earth, and it licks up the water in the trench. Like Moses, Elijah needs fire and brimstone in order to get God’s message across to the public. And like Moses, he extracts communal contrition from the people, as they witness this miracle: “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces, and they said, “Adonai hu ha’Elohim, Adonia is God!.” (I kings 18:39)

The goal, for both Moses and Elijah, is to eradicate once and for all the ambivalence in God worship that was rampant throughout the land. How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him and if Baal, follow him. (I Kings 18:20) History repeats it self. The first major transgression of the fledgling new nation, idolatry, is apparently repeated in every generation of Biblical history.

Have we made any progress in the 21st century? We don’t seem to be bowing down to wood or stone or golden calves. But idol worship still abounds. Our current idols are no less seductive. The American obsession with fortune and fame is in itself a cult of idol worship. Money and possessions have become idols. Excessive nationalism can be considered a form of idolatry. The desire to gain fame or recognition, egocentrism and pride might be considered forms of idolatry. Moses was the first to challenge the temptation of idolatry. Elijah confronted it again in his time. Their message remains poignantly relevant for contemporary Western society.

Suri Krieger is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.