David Lerner

Elijah Takes On Iranian Missiles: Shabbat HaGadol 5784

There are some really strange elements to the Passover seder.

Like the glass of wine we put on the table for Elijah the prophet who lived 3,000 years ago and apparently, he’s coming over to your house on Monday night. 

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We wait for him to drink the wine like the Christian custom of waiting to see if Santa finishes off his milk and cookies. 

I like to bump the table surreptitiously so the wine moves in the cup.

And then there are the plagues – who came up with the idea of singing songs about plagues?

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“One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed

There were frogs in his bed

And frogs on his head

Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes

Frogs here, frogs there

Frogs just jumping everywhere”

For years I’ve wanted to sing in shul.

While the song engages the kids, singing about plagues is a bit weird.

We once bought a set of toy plagues, they came with ping-pong balls for hail – throwing those around was fun – sunglasses to experience the plague of darkness. 

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* *

In the darkness last Saturday night, Israelis were told that drones, cruise missiles, and ICBM missiles – Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were heading to their country.

This was not a regular attack of smaller missiles from Gaza or Lebanon that Israel regularly endures. This was some serious firepower – not from Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, or fighters in Syria and Iraq. 

It was Iran straight up. 

A pretty big deal and a bad one at that.

These 320 rockets and drones were aimed all over Israel and would have caused untold damage, but they didn’t. 

The US, the UK, France, and even Arab countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all helped Israel fend off this massive attack.

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Miraculously, all these missiles did almost no damage except seriously wounding one Arab Muslim Israeli girl – and we pray that she receives healing.

An Israeli Physics professor who worked in the defense industry wrote that what happened in Israel last Saturday night was a miracle on par with the splitting of the Sea.

The likelihood that everything would work out with such complicated systems that had never been tried in a real attack was incredibly low.

“What happened is that everyone, but everyone – the pilots, the systems operators, and the technology operators acted together as one, at one moment in total unity.” 

And they had to deal with each missile individually.

The professor attributed this miracle to God.

While I am not a big believer in God working supernatural miracles, I do see that God can motivate human beings to do great things, especially when we live out God’s values.

I see a beautiful dance, an interplay between God’s inspiration and human beings. God’s spiritual presence motivates human actors like Moses to leave Egypt, Nadav to courageously walk into the Sea of Reeds with the water up to his nostrils, and Miriam to rejoice after they were all saved from the Egyptian army.

God and people becoming one – 3500 years ago leaving Egypt and one week ago in Israel.

* * *

This morning is Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat before Pesah. We read a haftarah from prophet Malachi who lived 2550 years ago in the aftermath of the tragedy of the destruction of the first Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

Malachi writes about the future redemption when the generations will be reconciled with each other. 

That might be more challenging this year as so many of us have differing opinions on the Gaza/Israel War and many of the disagreements divide along generation lines. Let’s hope that we find common space at the Seder.

I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Malachi’s text. He imagines that God will send Elijah the prophet -הִנֵּ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהֹוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of this great and awesome day of GOD. (Malachi 3:23). 

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Malachi chooses Elijah, who lived 300 years earlier than he did to be the harbinger of redemption, the one who would usher in a time of peace for the world. 

It’s kind of a strange choice. 

Elijah does not seem to be an agent of peace; one of his most famous moments is his battle with the pagan priests of Ba’al whom he kills. Their violent deaths reveal a dangerous zealousness that is not at all peaceful.

But immediately after that troubling behavior, we find Elijah in the wilderness where he hears God’s voice on the top of a mountain – a private Sinai-like moment. 

The text states: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting of mountains and a shattering of rocks by GOD’s power; but GOD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but GOD was not in the earthquake.  

After the earthquake—fire; but GOD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound, a kol demamah dakah – a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-13). Or as Paul Simon wrote: the Sound of Silence.”

Elijah is an agent of action, but he is also a model of contemplation – a mystical prophet whose presence can heal, a man who dies by ascending to heaven on God’s chariot in a whirlwind.

Over the millennia, Elijah becomes a symbol of protection for the Jewish people – quiet protection. We call upon him to support us and baby boys as they enter the covenant. 

On Saturday nights, we sing and yearn for his presence to sustain us as the work week begins anew.

But his most dramatic moment is right after the dinner at the Seder. We open the door for him, inviting his presence into our homes. 

In that moment, we are thinking not merely of his spiritual presence, but his power to protect us from our enemies. 

For thousands of years, Jews could not protect themselves and Passover was often a time when Jews were violently attacked after being falsely accused of killing Christian children or even drinking their blood as our wine at the Seder. 

Since for most of Jewish history, Jews had no one to call for help, they called upon Elijah. 

Maybe he can help us as he did thousands of years earlier.

* * *

Most of us have only experienced our holidays in safety, especially in this great country. We are not afraid at our seders. 

Our seders are a time of learning, eating, rejoicing, and sharing our food while retelling the timeless story of the Exodus.

But this year it feels different. 

How do we celebrate when we know our sisters and brothers are vulnerable in a way that has not happened since the birth of the State of Israel? 

Actually, since the Holocaust? 

Our Israeli brethren and sisters are truly threatened by Iran and its proxies who surround them.

How do we celebrate when we know that 130 of us are still hostages, in other words, are still in Egypt? 

Our tradition says the Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzrayim is related to m’kom tzar, a narrow place. And our people are being held underground in narrow places in Gazan tunnels by one of the most violent terrorist groups our world has ever known.

And how can we celebrate and eat so much when we know that so many in Gaza are hungry? 

There is such a disconnect between this holiday and the reality in which we are living.

* * *

Like the seder, I have lots of questions, but I don’t have all the answers. 

What should Israel do? 

Was its response on Thursday night the right move?

How can it eliminate Hamas and try to negotiate the return of the hostages? 

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Maybe it should just stop and get them home?

How can Israel help the Gazans receive aid without endangering its own soldiers and its own security?

* * *

Three moments of the Seder resonate deeply for me this year. 

When we break the middle matzah, we focus on the brokenness of the world. We acknowledge that this is a shattered world, full of many challenges. We enter the seder, the story of our redemption, with that awareness.

When we eat the carpas, we remind ourselves that spring brings rebirth even without any human agency – it reminds us that goodness can be right around the corner.

And then there is the central statement of the Haggadah. After we have told the story from four different angles, the text states 

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they had come out of Egypt,

as it is said: 

“And you shall tell your child on that day,

‘It is because of this that Adonai acted for ME when I came out of Egypt.’”

As if WE came out of Egypt.


We need to find the spiritual, Divine energy to endure this moment. 

The story of the Exodus is not merely an ancient story, but one we are living now. “Let Our People Go” is as true today as it was then.

I grew up passing a mirror around the table at this moment of the seder and still follow my parents’ custom. Looking at ourselves invites us to reflect.

Where is the still small voice that inspires us to act in a way that can move us and the world towards a modern Exodus, a moral world that is closer to the biblical ideal of redemption?

When we call upon Elijah, may he help protect Israel from the modern hail of rockets from the sky and bring the spiritual presence that helps us become aware of all the complexity of this time, that helps us see ourselves in the narrative of redemption.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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