Growing up in a traditional Jewish home, Elijah the Prophet was the closest thing I had to Santa Claus. After hours of sitting through the Passover Seder rituals, dipping my parsley in salt water and bitter herbs (marror) into a cinnamon-apple pudding (haroset), and finding the afikomen – Dayenu! (Enough!), it would finally be the time when my grandfather would motion me to the front door.
With a bit of hesitation, I’d grasp the knob and pull it open to reveal the dark, cool, April night. There would be a crisp breeze that I was sure was Elijah’s spirit, coming to check on us and making sure we were still awake. But instead of bearing gifts, Elijah stopped by for a quick drink of grape juice, and then went on his merry way. A bit of a letdown to an American kid whose peers were visited by a jovial, sweet-toothed, toymaker.
As I grew older and less literal, I found this ritual to not only be odd, but out of place with the rest of the holiday’s traditions. After all, Passover is primarily focused on the Exodus from Egypt, our emancipation from Pharaoh, and the birth of the Israelite people. In the last hour of our seder, Elijah shows up, thirsty and late for the party.
Who is Elijah in our tradition and what does he have to do with Passover? Well, firstly, he was never in Egypt himself.
Elijah is believed to have lived around 900 BCE in ancient Israel, a good 400 years after Moses and the splitting of the sea. Like us, he probably had Passover seders (though his included a sacrificial paschal lamb), and like us, unfortunately, he lived through tumultuous times. He witnessed the kingdom of Israel split into two, with the murderous, tyrannical, King Ahab ruling the north.
Injustice and pain were all around Elijah, and he did not cower. He spoke out, loudly, honestly, and sometimes quite harshly in his prophecy, imploring the Jewish people to take accountability for their actions, and improve themselves. But, he was mostly unsuccessful in having an impact, which left him disheartened and resentful. In one emotionally charged moment, Elijah tells God that the Israelites had “abandoned their covenant (values)”, that there was no hope for Judaism, justice, or freedom from oppression. Elijah argued that we had failed our mission in tikkun olam (repairing the world), and that we were a lost cause.
Are we a lost cause?
We’re going into Passover this year with a renewed sense of gratitude (thank you, vaccines!) but also, with a renewed awareness of the violence and pain in the world. It’s easy to feel hopeless, but that is the very attitude Passover is fighting against. The seder is not a history lesson, it’s a rallying cry; we perform rituals that are supposed to make us taste and feel like we went from slavery to freedom, in order to remind us that we can improve our circumstances.
The Rabbis tell us that this is why Elijah visits us on seder night, to see what he wasn’t able to see back then, that real change can happen when we work to better ourselves. Opening the door for Elijah reminds us that we should not get discouraged, that there is an opportunity in every new day to pursue justice and tikkun olam.
Elijah may have felt hopeless during his time, but I like to think his yearly visits bring him some peace, when he is greeted by new generations continuing his legacy and making a kinder, freer, world.
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