April 5, 2001
Shabbat HaGadol (Haftarah Malachi 3:4-24)
As the seder evening proceeds, my son wants to know one thing: "When will Elijah get here?"
From earliest childhood, he captures our imagination. We wait for him and wonder about him. We invite Elijah the prophet to visit us at our seder table, drink from his cup, and then move on, to visit the next seder, down the street or across the world.
But who is this magical, mysterious visitor -- and what is he doing at our seder?
The biblical Elijah was a defender of God, a champion of monotheism who battled monarchs and religious leaders for the sake of God's name. But it is his death -- more than his life -- that intrigues. The story, as told in the biblical book of Kings, tells us that Elijah does not pass away in the normal sense; instead, he is somehow "taken" by God, swooped up into heaven "in a whirlwind." After that, there is no mention of Elijah again until the very last words of the very last prophet, Malachi, which will be chanted in synagogues this Shabbat. That text tells us that Elijah will come and "reconcile parents with children and children with their parents" (Malachi 3:24).
The unifier of generations. The reconciler of parents and children. With such a near-impossible task in his portfolio, Elijah becomes something more than mortal, something larger than life. The prophet who will accomplish the miracle of warming the hearts of the generations to each other becomes endowed with even more qualities, with a range of universal to very personal implications. The figure of Elijah transforms into an invitation -- to ultimate redemption, to peace and reconciliation in this pained world.
He is seen as the front-runner of the Messiah, the one who will announce that better days are coming for all of us. But his powers are not limited to that vast application. In talmudic literature, we see a figure who appears, inexplicably, in all variety of situations: a synagogue, a study hall, a rabbinic discussion. Always, Elijah acts as a wise man, a counselor to the rabbis, a dispenser of special insights.
But Elijah's mysterious appearances do not stop there. Throughout our literature and lore, the prophet has been known to show up even in unlearned circles, in the streets, homes and businesses of the common man. Stories abound, granting him numerous cameo roles as mystery guest, miracle worker, guardian angel, agent of God. For thousands of years, mortals have encountered Elijah, realizing only after the fact that the quiet visitor, the beggar at the door, the magical man -- often lining up help for the poor and suffering -- was Elijah himself.
He is a richly textured and multidimensional character. Bringer of the Messiah and guardian of orphans. Many parts of a complex whole. But what's he doing at our seder?
Jewish tradition imbues Elijah with the job of heralding the ultimate, worldly redemption. And Passover night, with all its sights, sounds, words and images, is a celebration of redemption. But there is even another reason for Elijah's nocturnal visitation.
In the Talmud, when there are matters of debate that cannot be solved by mortals, Elijah is invoked: the Rabbis declare "Teiku," an acronym for words which mean "Elijah will someday come and resolve all difficulties and problems." Through Elijah, stalemates will end. Impossible questions will be answered. And the darkest recesses will be illuminated.
On Pesach, the night of redemption also is a night of questions. From "Ma Nishtana" through the song "Echad Mi Yodeia," the act of questioning, of pointing out problems and inconsistencies, defines the seder ritual. Questioning and redemption are two sides of the same coin. A sense of Israelite redemption can be experienced only through a process of rigorous asking, through hours of seeking.
"Where is he?" my son wants to know. "When is Elijah coming?" Perhaps he is here already, happy to fulfill his many tasks as long as we seek him with our questions.