Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer GurkowCourtesy

a stubborn ox? The Haftorah this week tells the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel. It was approximately 740 BCE and idol worship was rampant in Israel’s Northern Kingdom. Wanting to demonstrate the fallacy of idolatry, Elijah challenged the prophets of the idols to a contest on the top of Mount Carmel, a wide-open space with room for many spectators.

Elijah proposed: Let us both build altars and let us each slaughter an ox, but neither of us will kindle a fire on our altars. You pray to your idols to create a fire and I will pray to my G-d. Let us see which G-d performs the miracle. The prophets agreed and they gathered on Mount Carmel. Elijah let the prophets go first and they spent the morning praying to their idol, but to no avail. Elijah stepped up in the afternoon and prayed to G-d, Who promptly dispatched a flame from heaven to consume the offering. The people were astounded by the miracle and called in unison, G-d is the true G-d, G-d is the true G-d.

This part of the story is well known. However, the part I am about to tell is not as well known.

Elijah suggested that two oxen be selected that were born to the same mother and raised in the same pasture. They threw lots and one fell to Elijah, the other to the prophets. Elijah’s ox came to him promptly when the lots were thrown. The other ox dug in its feet and refused to budge. The nine hundred prophets grunted, pulled, and pushed but they couldn’t budge the stubborn ox.

The stubborn ox fled the prophets and hid under Elijah’s cloak. Elijah urged the ox to go with the prophets, but the stubborn ox refused. It opened its mouth and complained: My friend and I emerged from the same womb and were raised on the same pastures. He merits to be in G-d’s portion and G-d’s name will be sanctified through him and I end up with idolaters and will anger G-d?

Elijah replied, “Ox, ox, fear not and go with them; let them not find an excuse to call off this match. And just as G-d’s name will be sanctified through the ox that is with me, so will G-d’s name be sanctified through you.” The stubborn ox was appalled. “Is this how you advise me? I swear I will not go unless you hand me over to them.” Indeed, Elijah handed over the ox and the challenge commenced.

The Bacon Sandwich
Every time I look at something non-kosher, I ask myself the ox’s question. Why did the spark of G-d inside the bacon end up there? Didn’t it get the raw end of the deal?

The bacon serves G-d just like the kosher meat. But the kosher meat serves G-d when we eat it for holy purpose, the bacon serves G-d when we turn it down. Moreover, every moment until we actually turn it down, the spark inside the bacon frets that it might anger G-d if a Jew eats it. How did the kosher meat luck out when the bacon got stuck? This is essentially the question of the stubborn ox.

What is Elijah’s response? Just as my ox will sanctify G-d, so will you. Really? Come on now. There is no comparison here. The kosher meat servs G-d by being chosen, the bacon servs G-d by being rejected. The spark in the bacon vivifies something unkosher. Something that represents a transgression, and Elijah wants the ox to volunteer willingly to this fate? The stubborn ox is right. Isn’t it?

G-d’s Perspective
It is not surprising that the ox takes this perspective because it is, after all, an ox. But from G-d’s perspective it is an entirely different story.

G-d needs two kinds of meat in this world. Kosher meat and non-Kosher meat. He needs two kinds of houses of worship, where G-d is worshipped and where idols are worshipped. From G-d’s perspective it takes both to give us the choice that G-d wants us to have. If there were only kosher meat, and no option to eat unkosher meat, we would have no choice but to eat kosher. If there were no idolatry on earth, there would be no way to choose monotheism. It is only when there is contrast that there is choice.

To create contrast, we need good and bad. Preservation of life and taking of life. Monotheism and idolatry. Kosher and unkosher. Both need to exist for the right path to be chosen. If the idol worshippers had no ox, there would be no contest and G-d’s name could not be sanctified. Yes, of course, it would be more convenient and noble to be Elijah’s ox, but this is not about the ox or its feelings. This is about G-d.

The Stubborn Ox
When the stubborn ox refuses to play its role, it proved itself to be a selfish animal. Its argument sounds holy and noble, but it is in fact patently ridiculous. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of this, so your solution is to sabotage the entire event? What is the end result? Jews will continue to worship idols and G-d’s name will be desecrated. You worried about angering G-d, well guess what, you have angered G-d, only this time it was your choice.

Sometimes we play the same kind of game. We place ourselves in G-d’s way and refuse to do what He wants because it doesn’t feel right. For example, we won’t put on Teffiln because we are not sure we believe in G-d and we don’t want to be hypocrites. We won’t light Shabbat candles since we plan to go out to the movies on Friday night. We won’t give to charity because we only have a little bit of money, and don’t want to hurt the poor man’s feelings.

This is a tactic of our evil inclination who stands in the way of doing the right thing. He asks us to place our feelings ahead of what is best. Let the poor man decide if he would rather have your quarter and your apology or nothing and your rejection. Let G-d decide if He would rather have his daughter spend a moment with Him at sunset or have her ignore Him all Shabbat long. We create a veneer of integrity when we refuse to do a little because we won’t do everything. The truth is we need to start somewhere. And we should begin where G-d wants us to begin.

The Boomerang
Everything we said is true, but it doesn’t take away the fact that the stubborn ox got the raw end of the deal. Yes, the challenge needs to happen, but why did this ox need to end up on the wrong side? Why couldn’t it be on Elijah’s side?

The answer is that resistance builds strength. When you walk near a pitfall, you watch your step. When you walk on a paved road you can stumble and fall. The closer we skirt to failure, the harder we work to succeed. The iciest spot on the driveway is the safest place to walk because we salt that spot best.

It’s all in the perspective. Being on the wrong side of the divide is not just a stumbling block, it is a wakeup call that inspires people to grow better and even better. So, the stubborn ox refused to go because it didn’t have faith in the people. Elijah handed over the stubborn ox because he had faith in the people.

In the end, the people didn’t worship idols. Instead, they were inspired to return to G-d. The ox remained stubborn until the end, but thanks to Elijah the people saw what the needed to see. And they proclaimed, G-d, as the only true G-d.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.