It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar with the triumphant cry from the wonderful passage (First Kings,chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel: “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim! The Eternal One (alone) is God!” We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the ONLY time all day we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.
Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial! King Ahab and (even more so) Queen Jezebel (a name known as a synonym for wickedness even for people who never read the Bible) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice. They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true God.
So Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al on Mt Carmel. He says we will each prepare our offering, and the god who consumes the offering without a fire being kindled is the real deity. The prophets of Ba’al go first, and though they cry out and gash themselves, nothing happens. Then Elijah pours water all over his offering, so much water that it fills the trench around the makeshift altar erected for the showdown. Then Elijah cries, “Answer me, O Eternal One, Answer me, and POOF! The offering, the altar beneath it and even the trench filled with water go up in smoke.
Who is God? Elijah essentially asks? Is it your idol that you worship by gashing yourselves and with other abominations that make a mockery of human dignity? Is it Ba’al who—you hope—will greedily eat your offering? Or is it the one true God who wants us to create a world of justice, kindness, caring and compassion?
And then in most dramatic fashion God vanquishes Ba’al on Mt Carmel and everyone must acknowledge God’s sovereignty. It is a replay in miniature of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt where God defeats Pharaoh, the pagan god in human form.
So what should Jews take away when the liturgy references this amazing scene at what is arguably the holiest moment of the year? What should we all learn from this passage that can help us to live better lives?
Even though many in power debase the ideals and values that the Eternal One wants us to uphold—and even though God does not assert the reality of the Divine presence as dramatically to us as we see on Mt. Carmel (or in the parting of the sea)–it is our job to hold fast to God’s desires for us. True worship is not found in mouthing empty words, but in making our faith the driving force in our lives. We glorify God and demonstrate our faith when we use the talents that God has given us—whatever they may be—to help repair this broken world.