Friday, 22 February, 2019 - 9:19 am

A preacher trained his horse to go when he said, "Praise the Lord," and to stop when he said, "Amen". The preacher mounted the horse, said, "Praise the Lord" and went for a ride.

When he wanted to stop for lunch, he said, "Amen".

He took off again, saying, "Praise the Lord".

The horse started going toward the edge of the cliff. The preacher got excited and said, "Whoa!". Then he remembered and said, "Amen", so the horse stopped at the edge. The preacher was so relieved that he looked up to heaven and exclaimed, "Praise the Lord!"

The rest is history…

Some twenty-seven hundred years ago, one of the most dramatic events in Jewish history took place atop Mount Carmel in northern Israel, as recorded in the 18th chapter of Kings I, and recited as the Haftarah of this week Ki Tisa.

The people of Israel were torn between their allegiance to G-d and the dominating culture of depraved idol-worship espoused by King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. The prophets of G-d had been decimated by the cruel Jezebel, and some of them forced into hiding. Elijah remained a lone voice of unapologetic faith and of fortitude against an evil regime.

Like in some Biblical Western, Elijah challenged Ahab and the “prophets” of the pagan gods Baal and Asherah to a showdown one morning on Mount Carmel.

At the appointed hour, thousands of Jews had gathered to watch an epic standoff between the solitary Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal idols.

In a vivid scene of incredible tension and high drama, Elijah first turns to the people, thundering, “How long will you go on wavering between both sides? If G-d is the Lord, follow Him, and if Baal is, follow him.” The people remain silent.

Continuing, he declares, “I alone remain a prophet of G-d, while the Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let there be given to us two bullocks, and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and butcher it and place it on the woodpile, and put no fire underneath. I will prepare the other bullock, lay it on the wood pile, and put no fire underneath.

“Call on your gods and I will call on G-d, and the one who shall answer with fire, he is the true G-d.” And the entire nation responded: “ Yes, It is good .”

The two bulls are herded out: first, the false prophets would attempt to call on their Baal to miraculously send fire to consume their sacrifice. Then it would be Elijah’s turn.

After Elijah has sent the bull off the false prophets, they got to work:

... [The falls prophets] prepared their bullock. And they called upon Baal from morning till noon, saying, “Baal! Answer us!” But there was no voice, no response. And they pranced about the altar they had made…. And Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, to this god of yours. Perhaps he is conversing, or meditating, or off on a trip; perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened….”

Eventually, as the day went on, the Baalites were forced to give up.

Before sunset, Elijah slaughtered his bull, placed it on the altar and then thoroughly drenched the wood and altar with water, three times. It was a moment of incredible theatre, but real, intense drama. The people stood and waited for the moment of truth.

"G-d! Answer me!" Elijah cried out to the heavens.

Immediately a fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, evaporating all of the water. The people fell on their faces and proclaimed—those very words with which we conclude our Yom Kippur service—“Hashem Hoo Haelokim,”—G-d is the Lord! G-d is the Lord!”

It was a defining moment in Jewish history, a resounding victory for the forces of truth and of faith, the inspiration for a national return for the Jewish people.

We sometimes feel dejected over our mistakes, failures, and issues—in the past or in the present. We get depressed over our depression. Comes Elijah and says to each of us, “My dear bull! I know you have a powerful animal within, and you ask yourself why you need to deal with these thoughts? But remember, by going into the lowly world of Baal and demonstrating its futility—you are creating the same Kiddush Hashem as the bull which remains completely holy and pure. G-d sent you on a mission to reveal how darkness has no hold over your life—that is as noble, majestic, Divine and sacred as any other mission in life.

To give an example. The scientific method is based on observation of phenomena, the creation of hypotheses to explain them, and an experiment to verify. When an experiment fails to demonstrate a certain hypothesis, then it’s back to the drawing board.

But it has often been said that while a scientist always hopes that an experiment will support his or her theory, a failed experiment can be just as important. As Thomas Edison declared, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

In the field of biomedicine, there is actually a journal specifically dedicated to publishing these “negative results.”  

Sometimes we end up, learning the most about ourselves, and achieving truly great things specifically when we make mistakes, when we confront our weakness, and failures, and rise to the challenge. James Joyce put it thus: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

This the message of Elijah. Do not be afraid of fighting that negativity. From the Divine perspective, it is all part of revealing His oneness in all.

"The Baal Shem Tov loved light. So his disciples always made sure to light many candles whenever they expected their master.

"On one occasion, they had only a single candle and, despite their efforts, could not obtain any more. Knowing how much their master loved the light, they were bitterly disappointed by their inability to provide the illumination he desired.

"When the Baal Shem Tov entered the room, he told his disciples to go outside and collect the icicles that hung from the roof. He then instructed them to arrange the 'ice candles' about the room and light them. The ice burned like wax, flooding the room with light."

This was the energy of the Baal Shem Tov. There were no “two bulls,” there was no warmth and coldness. Even the ice was on fire.

Similarly, said the Rebbe, some Jews refuse to reach out and connect with their brothers who may be completely assimilated, unaffiliated or even alienated. Some Jews say, “I want to remain in a cocoon of holiness. Why are you sending me to places that are alien to Judaism?”

Says the prophet Elijah—No! The labor to reach out and show unconditional love to every Jew and help them see what they are capable of and how they are eternally connected to G-d is as holy as being entrenched in your intimate prayers and Torah study.

There was a famous Chassidic Jew from Russia called Reb Mendel Futerfas, a man who spent ten years of his life in a Russian gulag for teaching Judaism. One of the prisoners in Reb Mendel's camp was an old Cossack imprisoned because of his loyalty to the Czar. He reminisced with Reb Mednel about the Cossack horse.

You see, the Cossack horse was different than all other horses, incomparably different! A Cossack’s horse—he said—had a different heart. Not only would it do anything for its master; jump into the fire, over trees and even houses. Anything. And it was stronger, faster, and braver than anything alive. But most of all, it had a different heart.

I will explain," continued the Cossack, “How did they catch a Cossack horse? Do you know? Well, I will tell you, this is a story!"

"The Cossacks were experts at this. There was a special group that would wander the mountains and fields on horseback looking for herds of wild horses. Then, if they were lucky and found a large herd, say of a thousand, two thousand horses. They would stampede them and get them all running in the direction of the nearest river. Then they would start screaming and shooting their guns in the air and force the herd into the widest, deepest part of the river. You see, most horses can swim, and so they had to get over, through the current to the other side, or die.

Now, on the other side was waiting for another group of Cossacks. The whole thing was planned from the beginning, and they would watch to see what the horses did.

There were always two types of horses; some horses would make it to the other side and run away to live their lives. Then there were the young horses, that didn't have the strength to cross over, so they just floundered in the middle of the river."

His voice became serious, and he said: "But sometimes... Not always, but sometimes, there was a third type; maybe only one or two at the most, that was sort of crazy horses.

"They would make it across, but instead of running away, they would turn around, look back into the river to see if there were horses in trouble and then jump BACK in to save them."

"They would swim to the young horses, grab them with their teeth and start dragging them in. They just couldn't stand to see their fellow horses in danger.”

The Cossacks would throw some paint on these special horses and chase them for days until they caught them. Then it would take several months of hard work until they trained them. But the main thing was the heart; it was a horse with a heart.”

And Reb Mendel would say: From an old Cossack in the Soviet Gulag I learned the meaning of Ahavat israel—of loving another Jew. We may be horses or bulls, but we need to have the heart!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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