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		                                    Word Of Torah		                                </span>

Word of Torah

Written by: Sima Oster

Parashat Ki Tisa

 
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses confronts the consequences of the worship of the Golden Calf. The Haftarah paired with Parashat Ki Tisa focuses on Elijah and his mission to disprove the power and existence of two other foreign gods, Baal and Asherah. Reading about Elijah this month, as Jews around the globe all turn our attention to Passover, feels fitting. 
 
Elijah is a biblical prophet and a central figure in Jewish folklore. In Jewish tradition, Elijah will announce the coming of the messiah and the redemption, a fact celebrated in a song traditionally sung during Havdalah at the close of Shabbat, which prays for Elijah’s return “speedily in our time.” Some also sing this song during the Passover Seder, as they invite Elijah into their homes to drink from a cup of wine poured just for him.
 
But who was Elijah and how did he come to earn such a prominent place in Jewish tradition?
 
Elijah’s time as a prophet coincided with a period in which the Israelite people have been led astray, induced to worship the foreign deity Baal. A defining moment comes, in this week’s Haftarah, when Elijah summons the people to Mount Carmel and challenges the prophets of Baal to offer a sacrifice without the use of fire. The prophets call out to Baal repeatedly, but to no avail — their sacrifice remains unconsumed. In response, Elijah places a sacrifice upon the altar and douses it with water. He calls out to God and summons a fire from the heavens which consumes his sacrifice, the stone altar and the surrounding earth as well. Transformed for the moment, the people proclaim that God alone is the true God — a peak moment for Elijah.
 
But it turns out to be short-lived. The people’s faith wavers and the king’s wife Jezebel seeks to have Elijah killed. Fearing for his life, Elijah flees to the desert, where, in a moment that echoes the revelation at Sinai, God sends a shattering wind, an earthquake, and then a fire. Elijah does not encounter God in any of these powerful phenomena, but in the calm that follows, when he hears a “still, small voice” — and within it, he finds God. When his time on Earth comes to a close, Elijah does not die; rather, the Bible reports that God transports him to the heavens on a fiery chariot. 
 
On the face of it, Elijah’s story is not unique for a biblical prophet — others also perform miracles, chastise the people, face resistance and retribution and have personal experiences of revelation that bring them closer to God. Yet, Elijah’s story sets him apart from his peers and helps explain the unusually prominent place he has come to occupy in the Jewish imagination. The chapters in which he appears are among the most dramatic in all of the Bible. Elijah’s zealousness for God, his prophetic angst, and his existential loneliness have an intensity that is unmatched by other prophets. 
 
The rabbis of the Talmud imagined Elijah sitting intimately with God in the heavenly court and traveling back and forth between the divine and human realms. These stories, and those that followed, depict an Elijah who continues to take interest in the world he left behind, offering assistance to those in need and seeking out the one who will usher in the messianic era.
Elijah became a part of not only the Jewish past, but the Jewish present and our hopes for the Jewish future. Chance meetings with a stranger that led to a fortuitous reversal of fortune were spun into tales of personal encounters with Elijah. Over the centuries, Jews came to look out for Elijah at times of difficulty in the hope of personal or communal redemption.
 
And so, Elijah became part of our ritual life. We sing of him as Shabbat comes to an end in the hope that in the new week he will announce that redemption is at hand. We welcome him into our homes during Passover, the holiday that celebrates our redemption. And this month, as we prepare for Passover, we hope to celebrate redemption of another sort “speedily in our time.” Maybe, just maybe, Elijah will help!

 

Sun, March 7 2021 23 Adar 5781