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Elijah

“Behold I will send you Elijah (Eliyahu) the prophet before the great awesome Day of God and he will reconcile fathers to children and children to fathers” (Malachi 3:24).

This is part of the Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. It is just one of the many reasons we have for why we call it Shabbat HaGadol. And it sounds very apocalyptic. Why is it associated with Elijah, Eliyahu Ha Tishbi ( the town he came from)? It is true that in terms of stature and his place in our tradition, he was the greatest of the prophets even if no book is attributed to him. His public victory over the Prophets of Baal during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel was his most famous triumph. But just as significant was the Chariot of Fire that took him up to Heaven when he died which became the symbol of mysticism with which he was always associated. And mystics love messianism and days of judgment.

In the Talmud he figures prominently in the debates about messianism and whether he was to be the messiah or the pathfinder and precursor. But the tradition developed that he would pave the way for a messianic era and instruct us what to do and what parts of our tradition would be revived or survive when it came about.

In the Talmud, there are many episodes in which Elijah is said to appear to rabbis and guide them, and he is associated with solving unresolved halachic issues. The word used to close debates in the Talmud when there is no agreement is TEYKU. A word used in modern Hebrew for a draw in a soccer game.  Although the word is Aramaic, it is often said to stand for Tishbi Ytaretz Kushiot Ubaayot. Tishbi ( Eliyah HaTishbi) will solve all questions and issues.

Eliyahu has a special affinity with children in tradition. He figures prominently in the circumcision ceremony where the Sandek, the equivalent of a godfather, sits on a special Chair of Eliyahu (Kisey Shel Eliyahu) at a Brit. He is metaphorically the Sandek and protector of us all. Stories in the Bible have him helping barren women conceive and reviving children who are mortally sick. And he is a symbol of reconciliation as the last line of Malachi’s prophesy quoted above, talks about him reconciling parents to children and children to parents. And yet one could also point out the negative side. When he chooses Elisha to join and succeed him. Elisha asks permission to bid goodbye to his parents Eliyahu insists he abandons them for him right away without saying goodbye.

Eliyahu has multiple associations with Pesach. The most obvious when towards the end, we have the Fifth Cup of Wine dedicated to Eliyahu and we invoke his presence in asking God to remove our enemies.

Why is this fifth cup called specifically Eliyahu’s? On the one hand, it makes sense as our concept of the Messiah, is according to Maimonides, one in which oppression and hatred are removed and we are free to explore our spiritual lives unimpeded.  But also, because there is a debate as to whether we drink four or five cups of wine at the Seder to commemorate the four terms used in the Torah to describe the process that gave us our freedom from slavery “I freed you, I saved you, I redeemed you, I took you out.” But some say  “I brought you” counts as a fifth. Are there four or five words, four or five cups? The debate is left unanswered. Although we are obliged to have four cups of wine, we add an extra one just in case. Another example of a Teyku! Eliyahu symbolizes debate, change, hope, and loyalty to our traditions.

This year we have much to be sad about. So many beautiful young and not-so-young lives have been killed in defense of our land. So many more lives have been injured or ruined. And yet there have been so many examples of deliverance, self-sacrifice, and heroism. Is this the year the messiah will come? We can hope. But in the meantime, we have to do our best to reconcile, to heal the chasms amongst us. To come together to go forward united with pride and joy. Thank you, Eliyahu.

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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