The Haftorah for Ki Tissa (I Kings 18, 1-39) records the famous confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. But Elijah’s accusation lay more heavily against the Jewish people for its indecisiveness, than against the “prophets” for their idolatry. The challenge with which he faced them lay in his question, “How long will you vacillate between two opinions?” Why, though, did he direct himself against men of divided loyalties more than against those who were positively antagonistic to Judaism? The Rebbe examines the two sins of vacillation and idolatry, and shows the extent to which vacillation involves betrayal of religious values, and the forms which it takes in modern societies.

1. The Challenge

The Haftorah to this Ki Tissa contains an account of the prophet Elijah’s response to a troubled period in Jewish history, a situation engendered as always by mental confusion and ideological vagueness. His action was to gather together the prophets of Baal, and the Jewish people, and to ask them, “How long will you vacillate between two opinions?”1

Why, though, did he put this challenge to them? He should, on the face of it, have said, “How long will you worship Baal? The time has come to stop and say, ‘The L-rd, He is G‑d.’”2

To understand Elijah’s intention, we must begin by seeing the difference between idolatry and vacillation.

2. The Roots of Idolatry

In fact, it is hard to understand how a Jew could ever turn to idolatry. Jews are called “believers, the children of believers.” Their nature precludes the possibility of a genuine denial of G‑d.

Rambam3 attributes the origin of idolatry to the fact that the creative energy by which G‑d sustains the universe is channeled through natural forces—the stars and the planets. Idolatry begins when these intermediaries are worshipped in themselves, as the rulers of human destiny; whereas in actuality they are only the instruments of G‑d, of no power in themselves. They are like “an ax in the hand of the hewer.”

Chassidut4 explains the difference between a father and mother, and the planetary influences. Both seem to be causes of our existence. And yet one is commanded to honor one’s parents, and forbidden to worship the stars. The reason is that a mother and father have freewill. In bringing up children, they are responsible and they are to be honored. But the planets and their movements are determined. They have no choice. Our gratitude belongs not to them but to He who created them.

Idolatry, then, is mistaking the intermediary for the source. It is one of the most serious of sins, so much so that the Talmud states: “Idolatry is so grave a sin that to reject it is as if one were committed to the whole Torah.”5 The impulse to idolatry is that, according to this mistaken conception, one receives material benefits by propitiating natural forces. That is: Idolatry always has ulterior motives. And this is why a Jew can be led to it. He is not committed to idolatry as such. He is using it as a means to his own ends. Whereas when he serves G‑d he is doing so “not on condition of receiving a reward”6 but for His own sake and with an undivided heart. The desire for material reward lay at the heart of Baal-worship, and we find the idolaters saying to Jeremiah: “Since we stopped burning incense (to idols)… we have lacked all things and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.”7

3. The Nature of Vacillation

Despite this general characterization of idolatry as the attempt to influence nature by worshipping natural forces, there is a difference between idolatry proper and “vacillating between two opinions.”

Idolatry involves the genuine belief that the objects of worship, the stars and the planets, are the sources of material welfare. But the person who vacillates is in doubt. At times an uneasy feeling possesses him that idolatry is built on an illusion. Or it may be that he believes that G‑d and the forces of nature are in partnership. He believes in both, and that both must be worshipped. However, idolatry even in this muted form, and even if it is in word or act only, without any inward commitment, is so great a sin that it is in the nature of a Jew to be prepared to sacrifice his life rather than participate in it.8

4. Levels of Betrayal

In a number of ways, vacillation is even worse than real idolatry. In general terms, idolatry is the graver act. It involves the absolute denial of G‑d, the complete opposition to Judaism. But it is harder for the vacillating mind ever to return to Judaism or make his turning sincere and complete.

There are two reasons.

Firstly, when the genuine believer in idolatry comes to see that “the L-rd, He is G‑d,” he realizes the extent to which his previous life had been constructed on error. He feels the full measure of his sin. His repentance is profound. “He returns and he is healed.”

But the vacillator cannot see it so. He justifies himself. He says: “I did not deny, I only doubted. And my doubt was only superficial. In reality I was, like all Jews, a believer.” His excuses protect him from remorse, and his return to faith is incomplete.9

Secondly, although the believing idolater is guilty of a massive error of judgment in substituting Baal for G‑d, and thus severing his relation with G‑d, he is nonetheless open to a form of spirituality. But the person who hovers between two opinions has removed himself from the spiritual altogether. Although he knows that “the L-rd, He is G‑d,” he is willing to forsake Him for the sake of material reward. He is ready to trade the “fountain of living waters” for “broken cisterns that can hold no water.”10

Thus, when they realize their mistake, their response will be different. The idolater, still capable of spirituality, will make his return a spiritual act. But the man of vacillation will return for the wrong reason. He wanted material benefit. He miscalculated in thinking that the natural forces could, of themselves, provide it. So he does turn to G‑d, but still seeking only the material reward.

5. The Self and Others

So far, we have spoken only about the individual. In another respect, vacillation is worse than idolatry—in its effect on others.

The complete idolater will not influence the believing Jew, because his antagonism to true faith is obvious, and isolates him. But the person who hovers between two opinions is, in part, still a believer. He is capable of leading others astray, and the act of “causing the many to sin” is the worst sin of all.

6. Divided Loyalties and the Present

The Talmud11 says that the impetus of the “Evil Inclination” towards idolatry has been removed. But the tendency towards vacillation, whether in overt or subtle forms, is today stronger than it is towards idolatry.

There are those who temporarily detach themselves from Torah and the commandments for the sake of material reward: Money, honor or social status. They set aside G‑d and the law for a time, shelve them so as not to be thought out of touch with today. They follow the contemporary maxim of the Western world, that rules are to be stretched, traditions forsaken, for the sake of the elusive “spirit of the age.” And they are prepared temporarily to sell G‑d and their souls for ephemeral status, or for money, which (because it does not come as a Divine blessing) flows from them again in doctors’ or psychoanalysts’ fees.

This vacillation, this double-mindedness, is worse than idolatry, as we have seen.

First: It is harder to turn from it with a true returning, because the divided mind hides from itself the fact that it has sinned. Such a person can rationalize. He can convince himself that for the most part, he is a good Jew. What is so bad—he tells himself—in bending a few rules once in a while for the sake of making a living?

Second: His integrity is destroyed. He has sold the spirit for the material world. He has traded eternity for the passing moment. He has exchanged the World To Come for the glitter of money and the shadow of honor.

Third: He draws others into his sin. If he were openly to deny Judaism he would sever his contact with the Jewish milieu. But he hides his opposition behind a mask of loyalty. He even cites Torah in his defense. He infiltrates the community and leads others astray.

7. The Path of Return

This is the meaning of the Haftorah. The primary challenge to the Jew is, “How long will you vacillate between two opinions?” Sitting on the fence is worse than crossing to the other side.

At the end of the Haftorah, we read that the Jews turned in repentance and said, twice: “The L-rd, He is G‑d. The L-rd, He is G‑d.” This went beyond even the moment of revelation on Sinai, when it was said only once, “I am the L-rd, your G‑d.”12 For repentance takes the Jew higher in spirit than he was before he sinned.

This is the clear implication for today. The need is to return, and to reach back to the heights of the spirit.

All Jews are interlinked.13 And the light of those who return will reach those whom they brought to sin. They will be answered by a Divine response of compassion and mercy. And the leaders and the led will be caught up together in a collective movement of return, in a unified voice which proclaims: “The L-rd, He is G‑d. The L-rd, He is G‑d.”

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I pp. 183-187)