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Friday, 2 January 2015

Become a public servant of G-d!

Daf Yomi Yevamos 90

The people of Israel were drifting away from the Torah to the worship of the Baal.  Sure, they would still have Shabbat dinner and go to shul on Shabbos morning.  They still had mezuzos on their doorposts and put on tefillin quickly each morning before running out to work.  But publicly, they were doing their best to blend into the Baalite society around them.  If you wanted to get ahead in life, everyone knew that you had to be an ‘Israelite in the home and a Baalite in the street.’

The prophet Elijah realized that drastic measures had to be taken.  He challenged the prophets of the Baal to a public theological contest on Mt. Carmel.  Each one would offer a sacrifice without fire and whosever god would respond would be the true one.  Four hundred some Baalite prophets danced and prayed before their altar all day but nothing happened. 

Elijah had had enough.  “Until when will you sit on the fence, worshipping both G-d and the Baal?” he cried out to the people.  And with that, he drenched his altar with water and began to pray Mincha (the afternoon service).   A fire came down from Heaven and consumed his sacrifice.  The people declared in unison, “Hashem is the true G-d!”

Concerning the prophet, the Torah declares, “You shall heed him.”
The Beraisa teaches:  Even if he says to you to transgress one of the mitzvos in the Torah, just like Elijah on Mt. Carmel – everything according to the needs of the time, heed him.

In recent history, many have chosen to abuse this teaching of the Talmud by taking it to the extreme.  In the name of ‘the needs of the time’ there have been all manner of excuse to relax the Torah’s standards.  But if you closely examine the Talmud’s example of listening to the prophet even when he is intimating the performance of a transgression, you will see that the application is very limited.  Elijah didn’t change any of the Torah’s fundamental laws.  He didn’t tell people that they could adjust their observance of Torah and mitzvos based on the attitudes of the era.  On the contrary, that’s precisely what he was standing up to! 

What transgression did he commit?  Although originally one could offer a sacrifice wherever one pleased, the prophets instituted that once a centralized Sanctuary was established – whether that was the Tabernacle in Shiloh or the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – one could no longer erect a ‘backyard altar.’   This way, the people would worship as a nation instead of each person doing it however they felt like it.   The purpose of the rule of Temple-only offering was the standardization of worship and the unity of the people of Israel. 

In this case, however, Elijah felt that the purpose would best be served by a public display of worship on Mt. Carmel.  Had he simply offered a sacrifice in the Holy Temple, it would have been witnessed only by a handful of priests and levites.  Doing it publicly meant that the ultimate purpose could be accomplished – that the people should come together and accept the Almighty as their sole object of worship.  Instead of doing G-d at home and Baal in public, Elijah had to demonstrate that G-d alone must be worshiped privately and publicly.

There might have been times in history when it wasn’t as important to publicly display your Judaism.   You could be devout and pious in the home and try to blend into society in the street.  Not anymore.  Public blending might have worked for us, but our children are taking this to mean that one can do Judaism at home and Baalism outside the home.   And sadly we see how that story ends. 

It’s time to stand up on Mt. Carmel and be a proud Jew publicly.  Wear your kippah to work!  When you have a business lunch, don’t be shy to ask them to order you kosher!   Talk to your colleagues about the important role Israel plays in world democracy and the defense of western values!  Don’t be ashamed to tell your boss you need Jewish holidays off work and you need to leave early on Friday!


Elijah’s only ‘sin’ was to take Judaism public.  He saw that keeping it to the privacy of the Temple’s confines was not serving to unite the people in the service of the Almighty and that a public demonstration of the Divine was necessary.  May you merit being a public servant of the Almighty and a shining example of the beauty and truth of Judaism, never cutting corners and always striving to maintain the traditional standards of Torah and the unity of the Jewish people!