The Haftara of Ki Tisa

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by David Strauss


            The haftara of Parashat Ki Tisa (Melakhim I 18:1-39) recounts one of the most famous stories in the Early Prophets – the prophet Eliyahu's contest with the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel. This story raises several fundamental questions, both on the halakhic level and on the conceptual-theological plain. It has been treated at length by commentators, thinkers and halakhists from the time of Chazal until our very day. Needless to say, we cannot address all these questions in this framework, so we must limit ourselves to a single element.


            The haftara opens with God's command to Eliyahu to appear before Achav and thus bring an end to the drought that followed in the wake of Eliyahu's decree against the wicked king of Israel. As we may recall, Eliyahu had taken an oath in response to the king's wickedness: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before Whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (Melakhim I 17:1). In taking this oath, Eliyahu brought severe damage to the country's vegetation and hunger and great suffering to man and beast alike. The opening verses of our chapter describe a difficult situation of drought and aridity resulting from a lack of rain.


By commanding Eliyahu, “Go show yourself unto Achav” (18:1), God in effect instructs Eliyahu to change his strategy regarding the evil king and the people subject to his rule. Eliyahu's approach, up until that point, involved zealotry on behalf of God and the application of strict justice to the king and the people, while cutting off all contact with them. If we consider the prophet's actions in the previous chapter, we see that the drought came about as a result of Eliyahu's personal initiative, rather than a decree issued by God. It was not the King of kings who was zealous for His name, but rather His prophet, of flesh and blood, who, wishing to prevent a great desecration of His name, caused the rain to stop falling. In the words of Chazal, “Eliyahu defended the honor of the father, but not of the son” (Mekhilta Shemot 12:1). Because of his zealotry for the honor of Heaven, he was especially harsh with Achav and the people. By taking these drastic measures, Eliyahu adopted a policy of applying the attribute of justice in all its severity against the people. Rabbi Yosei addressed the issue of Eliyahu’s stern nature in the following Talmudic anecdote:


Rabbi Yosei taught in Tzippori: “Father Eliyahu was a hot-tempered man.” Now, [Eliyahu] used to visit him, but [after this incident] he absented himself three days and did not come. When he came on the fourth day, [Rabbi Yosei] said to him: “Why did you not come before?” He replied: “[Because] you called me hot tempered.” [Rabbi Yosei] retorted: “But before us [you] have displayed [your] temper! (Sanhedrin 113a)


            Eliyahu's temper was also accompanied by withdrawal from the people. This withdrawal was necessitated by Achav's fury, as our haftara recounts, but it also seems to reflect a sense of detachment from the people, reminiscent of Eliyahu’s flight to the wilderness following the episode on Mount Carmel. Both instances of flight were driven by the prophet’s desire to withdraw from a sinful people and by his loathing of their wickedness, and did not stem exclusively from a fear of danger to his person. For this reason, Eliyahu mentions both factors:


I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (19:10)


This is the flipside of Eliyahu's attribute of absolute truth.


            It seems, however, that the story of Eliyahu's withdrawal is more complicated, and that it is more than just the prophet's decision to distance himself from the people out of fear and disappointment, in the sense of “one who is under a ban by the Master is deemed under a ban by the disciple” (Mo’ed Katan 16a), for underlying his decision to leave there was a Divine command. As we may recall, after Eliyahu decreed that no rain should fall, he was commanded by God to remove himself from the people and hide in an isolated wadi, where he would be maintained by ravens.[1] God's order to Eliyahu was not merely good advice to help him remain safe, but an educational message that was meant to teach him that his extreme approach serves to distance him from human society. The severe way in which Eliyahu stretched the attribute of justice would not allow the world to continue to exist. Eliyahu's removal from society was meant to teach him that his expectations were too high and his actions too extreme.


In Eliyahu’s version of the ideal world, in which only a few select individuals can survive through personal providence, human society cannot exist. Is a society that is dependent upon ravens for food a conceivable reality?[2] What should all the average people, who do not merit personal miraculous providence, do to survive? Is this the way to revive the world? It seems that God wanted to allude to Eliyahu that it is impossible to run the world in this manner (or, at the very least, that this can only be a very temporary measure). Moreover, the decision that He made at the time of Creation was to create the world with the attribute of lovingkindness, and not with the attribute of justice. As the midrash relates (based on a verse in Tehillim): God cast the truth of the attribute of justice to the ground and in its place there grew a new and softer truth, that expresses the approach of the attribute of mercy, and recognizes human weaknesses as a given in the material world.[3]


            From a different perspective, it can be said that Eliyahu was acting on the basis of a deep truth that rests on the principles of providence, but without taking into consideration the human suffering that would follow in its wake. The mind and the intellect dictate the withholding of rain as the proper response to the wickedness of the kingdom of Israel, but how can the heart abide the suffering that will become the lot of the people? Eliyahu’s removal from society was a direct consequence of his demand that the rain stop falling. For how could Eliyahu live among the people without feeling human compassion for his neighbors and acquaintances and sensing from the bottom of his heart that his oath cannot be implemented? He was, therefore, told that his demand compels him to leave society, for it would be humanly impossible to remain in its midst.


            Of course, after a certain period of time, the drought began to show its effects; the streams dried up, the hunger began, the suffering increased and God decided that Eliyahu must leave his solipsistic existence, return to and become involved with society, feel the people's distress in the difficult times that befell them and experience feelings of compassion and understanding for them. He therefore commands Eliyahu to leave his place of seclusion at wadi Karit and go to the “woman of Tzarefat.” Chazal elaborated upon God’s true objective in sending Eliyahu to the woman:


“And it came to pass… that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick” (17:17). Eliyahu prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered: “Three keys have never been entrusted to an agent: [the Key] of Birth, [the Key of] Rain and [the Key of] Resurrection.[4] Shall it be said: ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one,” as it is written: “Go, show yourself unto Achav and I will send rain upon the earth” (18:1). (Sanhedrin 113a)


            Eliyahu's stay at the home of the poor woman, who is so poor that she is unable to offer him even bread, restores him to society and brings him face to face with its hardships. It is she who begs Eliyahu to pray for mercy and compassion from God when her son becomes sick. When he visits the woman of Tzarefat, Eliyahu feels the human brotherhood from which he had been detached during his stay at the wadi, and he once again connects with the life of the average person, who must struggle with the adversities of life. It seems, then, that the purpose of his journey to Tzarefat was to bring him back to a state in which he can pray and offer supplication for the woman and her child.


            Indeed, Eliyahu no longer asks God for one of the Divine keys in order to punish the people and cause human suffering, but instead he asks for a key that is wholly characterized by mercy and healing. Exchanging the Key of Rain, which was used to apply the attribute of strict justice, for the Key of Resurrection, to apply the attribute of mercy, expresses the change that came over Eliyahu. God’s request from Eliyahu to return the Key of Rain before taking the Key of Resurrection expresses a twofold principle: On the one hand, it says something about the relationship between the Creator and His creations – one must not cross the line that separates God and mortals. But it also gives expression to the principle of leadership based on compassion and the attribute of mercy that replaces the attribute of justice.


            All this takes place in the chapter that precedes our haftara. The events that transpire in our haftara are a continuation of those earlier events. Eliyahu's journey to the woman of Tzarefat was the beginning of a process, but it was not enough. There, Eliyahu learned compassion for an individual family with which he developed a strong connection and which desires to act kindly towards him. This is only the first step in the attitude change that God wishes to instill in Eliyahu. The next step is change in his behavior on the communal level and a change in his overall policy regarding the people and the king. This necessitates the cancellation of the decree that stopped the rain and a comprehensive solution to the problem of the drought. Furthermore, the nation needs a return to natural governance and a normal agricultural cycle, for a community cannot rely for the long term on miracles, as did the woman of Tzarefat.


            This point seems to underlie the Gemara's criticism of Eliyahu:


A certain Galilean expounded before Rav Chisda: “If one should make an analogy regarding Eliyahu, what does this matter resemble? A man who locked his gate and lost the key.”[5]


Even though Eliyahu took steps to bring the child back to life, he still did nothing to solve the problem of the drought that threatened the entire community.


            It is precisely at this point that our haftara begins. God takes the initiative and orders Eliyahu to appear before Achav. Eliyahu had stopped the rain on his own initiative, but the rain can only return on God's initiative, and the first step is Eliyahu's return to society. One cannot stop the rain and then disappear, but rather, one must be involved with society and struggle with its difficulties, and if that requires an unpleasant confrontation with Achav, that is better than detaching oneself from the nation and its situation. Therefore, just as Moshe came down from Mount Sinai and confronted the calf worshippers, rather than remaining outside the camp, so too Eliyahu must return to confront Achav and the Ba’al worshippers. It must be emphasized that returning to the people and confronting the problem of idol worship does not necessarily require compromise or waiver. Just as Moshe took drastic steps, initiating a civil war, so too Eliyahu will be forced to make the difficult decision to kill the prophets of Ba'al. However, Eliyahu must understand that dealing with a difficult situation is preferable to disappearing and hiding, as he had done previously.[6]


            However, before Eliyahu meets Achav, we meet Ovadyahu. Ovadyahu is the total opposite of Eliyahu, and for this reason the text describes the meeting between the two in detail. Were it the chapter's objective only to describe the events of Mount Carmel, it would not have been necessary to tell us which of Achav's aides met with Eliyahu and then arranged the meeting between him and the king; it would have sufficed to say that Eliyahu and Achav met. Do we know which of Pharaoh's aides brought Moshe in to see him and notified him of Moshe's arrival? Of course not – this is a technical point that neither advances the plot nor interests the Torah’s readers. In contrast, shining the floodlights on the meeting between Ovadyahu and Eliyahu emphasizes the importance of that meeting and the contrary approaches that the two of them represents.


            Ovadyahu, like Eliyahu, is a righteous man who has struggled with the challenges of serving God in a sinful generation. On the one hand, he testifies about himself that he “feared the Lord from my youth” (18:12). Indeed, Ovadyahu achieved what few characters in Scripture attained – explicit recognition of his profound fear of God: “Now Ovadyahu feared the Lord greatly” (18:3). Chazal noted the uniqueness of this account: “Rabbi Abba said: ‘Greater [praise] was expressed of Ovadyahu than of Avraham, since of Avraham the word ‘greatly’[7] is not used, while of Ovadyahu it is’” (Sanhedrin 39b). Chazal went on to sharpen Ovadyahu's righteousness further, creating a full parallel between him and Eliyahu by asserting that Ovadyahu is the prophet whose prophesies entered Scripture as the prophet Ovadya.


            On the other hand, it is Ovadyahu who was appointed over the house of Achav, had a senior position in the court, was close to the king and served as his confidante, accompanying him as his sole aide on a sensitive mission. It is easy to imagine the doubts that passed through his mind: Should he leave Achav's house and resign together with the rest of the persecuted prophets, and thus not be a partner in the wicked kingdom of Achav? Or perhaps he should stay in office, exert his influence over Achav as a counterweight to Izevel. Achav, like many other ancient kings, was exposed to twofold influence, that of his wife on the family level, and that of his advisors on the political level, and Ovadyahu surely wondered what advice Achav would receive were he to quit his position. Indeed, had Ovadyahu left Achav's house and joined the prophets, it would likely have been very difficult, if not impossible to protect and feed them. Where would they have gotten their food in times of dearth, when they were forced to hide in fear of the king? It is reasonable to assume that it was only Ovadyahu's presence in the house of Achav, giving him access to the royal food storehouses and exposing him to internal information, that allowed him to protect the prophets in hiding. It is important to emphasize that these prophets were the only remaining individuals capable of transmitting the tradition and passing on words of prophecy in hiding and in secrecy to those who thirsted for the word of God, and who were the spiritual counterweight to the prophets of Ba'al who operated publicly, and the last hope for a renewed spiritual renaissance following the eventual fall of Achav.


            Thus, Ovadyahu stood before one of the toughest dilemmas for anyone serving in a position of communal leadership, i.e., the extent to which one should work together with violent and wicked men in order to limit the damage and thus bring benefit to the community. Should cooperation between the righteous and the wicked be seen as recognition of the legitimacy of evil and approval of their actions? Should a communal leader who does this be seen as a partner in evil and wickedness? Or perhaps we should see his readiness to work together with a wicked regime as street smarts and self-sacrifice that protect the community and reduce its suffering. Should we view refusal to work in the framework of the ruling power as appropriate preservation of the purity of one's morals and non-submission to wickedness, or perhaps as shirking and running away from responsibility? This is a classic dilemma, one that is familiar to us from the history of our people, beginning with the Israelite officers in Egypt down to the Judenrats in Nazi-occupied Europe. We should not be surprised to find that some judge these leaders favorably and others unfavorably.


            In light of Ovadyahu's standing and practical influence, which translated into protection for the prophets who had survived Achav's purges, leaving the house of Achav would not necessarily have been the right path in those circumstances, and it is precisely compromise with evil that may have been the proper course of action.           Indeed, the text is seemingly uncritical of Ovadyahu’s behavior, implying that Ovadyahu acted properly in his circumstances. Following this approach, Chazal point to the problematic nature of Ovadyahu's presence in the house of Achav, but nevertheless fully justify his behavior, contrasting it with Achav's blindness regarding his situation:


It is written: “And Achav called Ovadyahu who was over the household. Now Ovadyahu feared the Lord exceedingly.” What did he say to him? Rabbi Yitzchak answered: “He spoke thus to him: ‘Of Yaakov it is written: ‘I have observed the signs and the Lord has blessed me [Lavan] for your sake’ (Bereishit 30:27); and of Yosef it is written: ‘The Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Yosef's sake’ (Bereishit 39:5), while my house has not been blessed! Perhaps [it is because] you are not a God-fearing man?’ Thereupon a Heavenly voice issued and proclaimed: ‘And Ovadyahu feared the Lord greatly,’ but the house of Achav is not fit for a blessing.” (Sanhedrin 39a)


            Furthermore, it seems that the reason that Chazal asserted that greater praise was expressed of Ovadyahu than of Avraham is precisely that Ovadyahu lived among the wicked. His fear of Heaven did not exist in the framework of sanctity and purity, but rather it was tried in the forge of life in the house of a wicked king. For this reason, Ovadyahu’s merit is considered as great and worthy of special mention.


            Now we can understand the significance of the meeting between Ovadyahu and Eliyahu. Both of them, as mentioned, stood before a similar situation, but each made a different decision. One chose withdrawal and adopted the attribute of strict justice towards the people and the royal house, whereas the other took the path of involvement and influence from the inside. Hence, this is not an ordinary meeting between two individuals, but rather a meeting between two opposite approaches. In light of this, we must understand Ovadyahu's argument against Eliyahu when they met, which was made at two levels:


And now you say: “Go, tell your lord: ‘Behold, Eliyahu is here.’” And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the spirit of the Lord will carry you where I know not; and so when I come and tell Achav, and he cannot find you, he will slay me. But I, your servant, fear the Lord from my youth. Was it not told to my lord what I did when Izevel slew the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord's prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water? And now you say: “Go, tell your lord: ‘Behold, Eliyahu is here’”; and he will slay me. (18:11-14)


On the simplest level, Ovadyahu expresses concern about his personal safety, and his complaint is that Eliyahu is liable to endanger his life. But on a deeper level, it seems that Ovadyahu is presenting and contrasting their opposite approaches. His argument is that Eliyahu has not changed his approach, and once again he will disappear to who-knows-where, whereas he will be left to deal with the reality of a wicked regime on his own. After Eliyahu will enrage Achav and thus reduce Ovadyahu's maneuvering space, there is real concern that this will lead to a cancellation of the existing achievements that were attained with great difficulty and which he lists before Eliyahu.


            Even Eliyahu alludes to the tension between the two approaches in his response to Ovadyahu's addressing him as “my lord” (“Is it you, my lord Eliyahu?”). His answer, “Go, tell your lord,” critically alludes to the fact that while Ovadyahu presents Eliyahu as his lord, Achav is his true lord. Upon careful reading of the verses, we see that Ovadyahu takes care in his response to Eliyahu never to use the title “lord” in reference to Achav, saving the terms, “my lord” and “your servant” for Eliyahu. In this way, he communicates to Eliyahu that he does not see himself as subject to Achav's authority, but rather as a prophet of God who uses his relationship with Achav to benefit the other prophets. When Ovadyahu does refer to Achav by the title “lord,” as he does on two occasions, he is merely citing Eliyahu’s instructions to him. It is easy to sense Ovadyahu's frustration with Eliyahu: He does not understand why Eliyahu deems him Achav's loyal servant, whereas he sees himself as a servant of God and as His prophet. This tension between the two men is a consequence of their fundamentally different approaches: Eliyahu is unable to understand how it is possible to work together with a wicked man without waiving one's personal religious integrity, while Ovadyahu sees this as a necessary and irreproachable evil, distinguishing between the functional and existential dimensions of his relationship to Achav.[8]


            An analysis of Ovadyahu's dilemma reveals another, somewhat subtle connection between the haftara and the parasha. The selection of the story of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel as the haftara for Parashat Ki Tisa is self-evident and expected, due to the clear parallels between that event and the sin of the Golden Calf. In both cases, the people abandon their God and turn to idol worship. The spiritual leader returns to center stage after an extended period of absence and succeeds in bringing the people back to God after a sharp and violent conflict with the idol worshippers. The conflict ends with the people's recognition of God and the killing of those who worshipped the idols. All of these parallels constitute the primary reason for choosing this story as the haftara. Nevertheless, as in the case of other haftarot, there is also a hidden connection that functions as a subplot alongside the central narrative.


            In our case, the primary narrative is the confrontation on Mount Carmel and its parallels in the wilderness, when the central figures whose modes of operation must be examined together are Moshe and Eliyahu. The subplot is the dilemma regarding cooperation with sinners, and the starring characters are Ovadyahu and Aharon. Aharon was forced to grapple with the same dilemma that Ovadyahu later faced, similarly opting to cooperate with the worshippers of the Golden Calf.


Aharon’s actions do not easily lend themselves to moral judgment. Chazal analyze Aharon’s thought process in the following Talmudic passage:


A difference of opinion is expressed by Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai, who says that the verse quoted refers only to the story of the golden calf, as it is written: “And when Aharon saw it, he built an altar before it” (Shemot 32:5). What did he actually see? Rabbi Binyamin bar Yefet said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: “He saw Chur lying slain before him and said [to himself]: ‘If I do not obey them, they will now do unto me as they did unto Chur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet: ‘Shall the Priest and the Prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of God?’ and they will never find forgiveness. Better let them worship the golden calf, for which offence they may yet find forgiveness through repentance.’” (Sanhedrin 7a)


A critical factor – which “verse quoted” is the Gemara referring to as a response to the sin of the golden calf – is not clear from Rabbi Tanchum's statement. Rashi understands that the reference is to the verse: “He that blesses an arbiter contemns the Lord” (Tehillim 10:3). According to this, Aharon's readiness to be a partner to idol worship was an act of contempt towards God. The Tosafot, in contrast, view Aharon in a favorable light and cite a verse that serves to praise Aharon: “The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity” (Malakhi 2:6). We find, then, that the leading Rishonim had two radically different assessments of Aharon's conduct, whether it was characterized by contempt or by a “law of truth.” This follows from the difficulty built in to the situation, the very same difficulty faced by Ovadyahu.


            Of course, Ovadyahu's situation was not exactly the same as that of Aharon. Aharon was forced to work together with actual idol worshippers and be a partner in the fashioning of the golden calf forty days after having received the Torah. In contrast, Ovadyahu was not a partner in any idol worship, but merely cooperated with an idolatrous regime in order to save the prophets of God. Therefore, we cannot necessarily draw inferences from one case to the other. What can be stated, though, is that the fundamental problem that both Aharon and Ovadyahu dealt with has no simple solution –no one knows the extent to which Ovadyahu suffered on his bed at night before deciding to remain in the royal house and not to join his fellow prophets in desertion. The detailed story of Ovadyahu parallels the story of Aharon and the Golden Calf, contributing to our understanding of what transpired in the wilderness.




[1] See Melakhim I 17:2-6.

[2] Compare with Bava Batra 8a, where Yonatan ben Amram asks of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi in a year of drought: “Feed me as the dog and the raven are fed.” In this case, man assumes responsibility for his surroundings and is prepared to feed his fellow and so too to feed the dog and the raven. This, of course, is the proper order, where man takes responsibility for the world, in contrast to the situation described in our haftara, where the raven is called upon to feed man.

[3] See Bereishit Rabba 8:5.

[4] See Ta'anit 2a.

[5] See Rashi’s explanation: “Eliyahu locked the Gate of Rain and in the end lost the Key of Rain, for the Gate of Rain was not opened by him, as it is written: ‘Go, show yourself unto Achav, and I will send rain upon the land,’ but it is not written: ‘and send rain.’”

[6] It should be noted that a similar story is found in Moshe’s narrative, not at the time of the sin of the golden calf, but years earlier, when Moshe fled to Midyan in fear of the king and in his disappointment with the people (see Rashi, Shemot 2:14). It was only God's appearance at the burning bush and the command that followed (“And God said unto Moshe in Midyan, ‘Go, return to Egypt’”), in terms similar to those used with Eliyahu (“Go, return,” “Go, show yourself”) that reinvolved Moshe in history.

[7] See Bereishit 22:12.

[8] To complete the picture, we must also examine the position of Achav and his confrontation with Eliyahu in the wake of the famine, but this is not the forum for that discussion.