When two couples insisted that I marry them both on the same day at the same time, I wished for Solomonic wisdom on how to split a rabbi in two. The old Yiddish adage that you can’t dance at two weddings came to life as we negotiated to shift each chupah half an hour in each direction.
That Yiddish phrase probably evolved from a statement by the Biblical Elijah. Elijah was one of the only prophets to survive Jezebel’s purge, only to confront rampant idolatry within the nation. Baal worship had become popular, and it was his job to nudge the Jewish community back into service of G-d. Elijah, as a prophet, had to deliver a clear message to his community to change their ways.
The Tanach describes how he challenged the Baal priests to a public pray-off. Round one would see the Baal crew set a bull on an altar and pray for a heavenly fire to devour it. Round two would be Elijah’s turn to do the same.
“How long will you hop between two platforms?” Elijah thunders, “If G-d is real, follow Him and if Baal is real, follow him!” No dancing at two weddings.
Prophets don’t play politics; their job is to share stark truths. How could he possibly suggest that Baal was an option?
Thank G-d, it all worked out, and the fire swooshed down onto his altar. The crowd got the message and acknowledged, “Hashem is the true G-d”, but it was a high-risk move to have entertained the Baal option. Can you imagine a rabbi at Kol Nidrei pushing his flock to select from a spiritual drop-down menu?
The Tanach is full of stories of Jews who succumbed to the allure of paganism. The Talmud explains that ancient idolatry felt as compelling for them as making a million bucks feels for us. Prophets from Samuel to Jeremiah admonished against serving idols. Elijah’s story was different. He had to deal with a community that wanted to have their matzah and eat it. One day they shockled in shul, and the next, they gyrated in front of an effigy.
Elijah understood that outright paganism is spiritually healthier than spiritual flip-flopping. Jews have always been spiritual seekers. Indian ashrams are full of Israeli backpackers who felt they couldn’t find meaning in the Holy Land. We may be convinced that our sparkling Shabbos table would have changed their trajectory, but we can’t fault them for seeking. One thing is for sure- should they one day realise that they’re a long way from their spiritual home, they’ll head back.
The Jew-for-Baal syndrome suggests a person who has no spiritual aspiration. He’s not a seeker; he’s a gambler. “Maybe G-d is right, so let me pay Him my dues- but maybe Baal will send me some business leads, so I’ll show him respect too”. Elijah knew that a person who commits to a spiritual discipline cares about transcendent values. A guy who plays both sides is really just interested in himself.
Judaism is not afraid of seekers. Abraham was a seeker, who instilled in us that compelling need to discover Truth. That’s why Elijah knew it would be easy to expose an idolator. He cringed at the thought of trading our quest for meaning for a place at the table of nations. The Jew who wants to be Jewish, yet enjoy the benefits of anti-Jewish thinking, poses a challenge. Before he pulls a miracle to prove his position, Elijah reminds us that the first step to meaningful growth is to pick a side. When we know where we stand, we can work out where we need to go. Those who try to dance at every wedding land up nowhere.
One of a series of insights of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on this story.