Elijah’s response to COVID-19

“Yesterday I made the hardest call I had to make as a chaplain,” Mr. Walker told me. He had a phone conversation with the family of a patient scheduled, but just before the call, the man died unexpectedly. The family answered, expecting to hear a regular update, and instead learned their loved one was dead. “To hear the family member scream like that,” he said, faltering, “was unnerving, even now.”

Bari Weiss has again awakened our listening skills in today’s New York Times by tuning our hearts to the perilous emotional frequency of hospital chaplains.

Honest emotional expressiveness matters so much.  Particularly now.  The prophet Elijah was good at this.  His name, which will be invoked millions of times this coming week, makes a first appearance at the end of this Shabbat’s Haftorah.

History paints ideal pictures of Elijah.  But his actual biblical persona is rather raw.  Liel Leibovitz, in Tablet Magazine’s great new Hagaddah, captures our abandoned and alone prophet faithfully.  “Elijah, never one to mince words, declares that he feels lonely, presumably because he has despaired of his people and their all-to-human inclination to fall short of holiness.”

Elijah poses a searing question at the climax of his confrontation with idolatry.  “How long will you continue to straddle (pos’chim, same word as Pesah) both sides of the boundary?!” (I Kings 18:21).  His words may now allude to the porous boundaries between healers and those in need of healing, since so many caregivers are themselves becoming infected.

Perhaps there’s also a porous boundary between trust and understanding.  Chaplain Walker makes a truly prophetic point.  “The thing about faith is faith is based on trust, not on understanding…I don’t pretend to understand this.”

We can trust the Hagaddah.  It has been good company for our people through the tightest of times.  When we read closely, we realize it’s telling us something important.  Particularly here and now.  The story told is more about the Exodus than about entering the covenanted land.  The Seder’s text is more about beginnings and yearnings than about destinations.  Rabbi David Wolpe shares something poignant about the decision to include Elijah in the Hagaddah, “The end of the story will happen on the night when we tell the beginning of the story.”

Elijah’s messianic announcement, referenced on this Shabbat HaGadol, is also heart-stirring.  He will “pivot the hearts of parents toward children, and the hearts of children toward parents” (Mal. 3:24).  As our hearts pivot toward those dearly deserving our our attention, may the companionship of our most sensitive voices sustain us through direful days ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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