Shifting altitudes, and attitudes: The haftarah of Ki Tisa

The haftarah of this week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, recounts the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. What is the significance of this particular site?

Mount Carmel is not a single peak. It is rather a mountain range, or ridge, extending for many kilometres, with a crest that coincides in part with the modern Route 672.

The two sides of Mount Carmel, descending on either side of this crest, provide a visual metaphor for the challenge that Elijah poses to the people (I Kings 18:21, JPS translation):

How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!

Mount Carmel, viewed from Moreshet in the Lower Galilee.

A closer look at Carmel’s topography may add another layer of meaning to Elijah’s argument. The ridge runs essentially northwest-to-southeast. One side descends gently toward the Mediterranean. The other side, facing inland, is much steeper, as can be seen in this terrain map:

Terrain map of Mount Carmel and surroundings. Note that Yagur, a kibbutz at the foot of the mountain, is barely above sea level; the Druze town of Isfiya, at Carmel’s highest point, towers some 500 metres above. (Google Maps)

Perhaps Elijah’s message to the people is this: The two options between which you must choose, like the two ways down from this mountain, are not alike. The way of Baal may appear smooth and pleasant; but it ultimately leads out to sea. The way of God and His Torah may be more challenging; but it is the path toward our continued flourishing in our homeland.

As if to underscore that message, the events that follow are a sequence of movements up and down the inland-facing slope of Mount Carmel. After the miracle of the fire from Heaven and the people’s profession of renewed faith, Elijah descends the slope to execute the prophets of Baal at the Wadi Kishon; he then climbs up to the top of Carmel to pray for rain; finally, he races back down to go before King Ahab, who is en route to his residence at Jezreel.

The rain that ensues ends a devastating drought, proclaimed earlier by Elijah (17:1) and then in its third year. This narrative has particular resonance right now in Israel, as we enjoy a plentiful rain season after several dry years. Neither the recent drought, nor its end, have been anywhere near as dramatic as the events of I Kings 18. But perhaps, if we are inspired to repentance by this extraordinary haftarah, we too will soon be rewarded with overt Divine intervention in our favor.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Philip Reiss is an Associate Professor in the University of Haifa Department of Statistics. He made aliyah, with his wife and their three children, in 2015.
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