Eliyahu and the False Prophets

In this week’s Haftarah we read how Eliyahu the false prophets of the Ba’al to a theological duel on Mount Carmel. “How long can you attempt to straddle two ideas? If God is God then follow Him, but if the Ba’al then follow him”. It was decision time, either follow God or follows the Ba’al.

For all that this was a great event it raises a difficult halachic question. We know that since the Temple was built it is categorically forbidden to offer sacrifices outside of the Beit HaMikdash. (See Zevachim 14:4-8 and Rambam, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:3). Thus, Eliyahu was breaking the law by building an altar on Mount Carmel in the North of Israel, and offering a sacrifice there to God.

The Gemara itself explains that the Torah gave the true prophet the power to modify the laws on a one-off basis, but not to change the halachah of Moshe indefinitely. (See Yevamot 90b).

The Rambam goes into great detail to explain that this was in fact an unusual occurrence and would have been forbidden were it not that Eliyahu was already a trusted prophet. (See Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:3).

Eliyahu did not come to change or erase any commandment from the Torah. Rather his sacrifice on Mount Carmel was a specific instruction for that one occasion. He only did so to teach the people that the idolatrous prophets were false.

Still, we could ask why was it essential that Eliyahu offer the sacrifice on Mount Carmel, could he not have taught the same lesson in Jerusalem?


Moshe the Man

The answer to that question appears in this week’s Parshah during the story of the golden calf.

It is something of a mystery to us that the Jewish people could see God on Mount Sinai and a mere forty days later build the golden calf. After all the people had seen God as He descended on the mountain, why did they turn to idolatry so soon afterwards?

The Midrash explains that the Jews did not demand that Aharon build the calf. Rather, the mixed multitude, the non-Jews who left Egypt together with the children of Israel were the ones that wanted the golden calf. (See Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19 and Rashi on Shemot 32:4)

The Egyptians were idol-worshippers and even though they left Egypt together with the Jews they still retained their idolatrous mentality. “Make us a god that will lead us as this man Moshe who took us out of Egypt we do not know what has happened to him” (Shemot 32:1).

They rejected Moshe’s leadership and looked for a god who would lead them. This is typical of the idolater’s mind, he perceives god as being far away in the heavens and man as being lowly and devoid of any sanctity. They call Moshe, Moshe the man, and it is clear that this is a derogatory name. They want god not men, god will lead them, man is nothing.

They cannot see that God gives man the power to lead and to do His will in this world. God has chosen Moshe to lead the people as He can give this endowment to man and can place spirituality anywhere that He chooses.

Only when this lesson is learnt can idolatry be replaced by Divine worship. This is the message of the golden calf, and this sheds light on Eliyahu’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel.

The people have left God and sought idols. They believe that God is far away, distant and removed from them. Therefore Eliyahu the prophet has to show them that God is everywhere. God does not only reside in the Beit Hamikdash but He is present throughout the world. Even on Mount Carmel one can serve God, if it is done in the right context and with the proper instruction.


Eliyahu and the Afternoon Prayer

Eliyahu disproves the false prophets by showing that while there god is indeed distant, the true God is very much part of the world. This explains the words of the Gemara; “Rav Chelbo and Rav Huna said that one should be particularly careful with the afternoon prayer as Eliyahu was answered in the afternoon prayer as it says ‘At the time of the Minchah Eliyahu the prophet turned to God’” (Berachot 6b).

Why was Eliyahu answered specifically at the time of the afternoon prayer at the time of Minchah?

The morning prayers come at the beginning of the day. Man has not yet started to work and fulfil his goals for that particular day. He starts the day by turning to God and considering what it is that he hopes to accomplish today and asks for help to achieve his goals.

At the end of the day he prays the evening prayer. He looks back on the day and sees what he did and what he has yet to improve. He thanks God for his achievements and prays for help to succeed the next day.

But the afternoon prayer is in the middle of the day, in the middle of man’s working hours. He stops what he is doing and turns to God to pray. He recognizes God right in the throws of his working day, that God appears here in his work, here in his life, in the here and now. As the Gemara taught that Yitzchak established the Minchah prayer according to the verse “Yitzchak went out to discuss in the field towards evening” (BeReishit 24:63 and see Berachot 26b). The afternoon prayer was first established in the field, in the workplace.

The power of Minchah is to see God everywhere, not only in the synagogue but in our everyday lives as well. That is the power of the prophet Eliyahu and that is the message of the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. God does not reside in Heaven, God exists in this world as well.