Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the prophet) has mythical standing in the Jewish tradition. Not only was he a prophet and a miracle worker, but he seems not to have died but rather to have ascended to heaven: “Behold, there was a chariot of fire and horses of fire… and Eliyahu went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11) This tradition already had an impact on Malachi, the last of the prophets, who speaks of the return of Eliyahu: “Lo, I will send the prophet Eliyahu to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)
As a result of these traditions, Eliyahu took on a role of “messianic” proportions as someone who would establish justice, be a reconciler and a harbinger of peace. In the following Mishnah, the sages debate the exact nature of his eschatological role, all founded on the basis of the verse from Malachi: “Rabbi Yehoshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher from his teacher, as a Halacha [given] to Moshe from Sinai that Eliyahu will not come to render impure or pure, nor to send away or bring near but rather to send away those who are forcibly brought near and to bring near those who have been forcibly sent away… Rabbi Yehuda says: To bring near but not to send away. Rabbi Shimon says: To reconcile disputes. And the sages say: Neither to send away nor to bring near, but rather bring peace to the world, as it says: ‘Behold, I send to your Eliyahu the prophet… And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mishnah Eduyot 8:7)
Rabbi Yehoshua does not see Elijah as a determiner of unanswered questions. Instead, he views him as someone who will correct injustices done through corruption, namely those whose social and religious status was altered through unjust pressure. Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, sees him as someone who will improve the lot of those whom society has harmed. Rabbi Shimon sees Elijah as an arbiter of disputes while the sages see him as the harbinger of world peace.
What we see in the variety of opinions among the sages regarding Eliyahu’s role are what seem to them the ingredients of a redeemed world. As we move closer to Pesah, the festival of redemption, we should keep their ideals in mind as we tend toward that end.