The Passover holiday is among the most meaningful of the Jewish year. Not just meaningful in a sentimental way, but quite literally filled with meaning. The arrangement of prayers, the consumption of food, even the positions in which participants sit all have a specific meaning or symbol. As the seder goes on, there remains unmoved Elijah’s Cup, poured for the benefit of the prophet and his message of messianic redemption. The idea of a messiah has evolved in modern Jewish thought, yet the idea of redemption retains its much of its original significance, much like Elijah’s Cup. The tables at which families gather this year are certain to be crowded, populated with songs as well as solemn recollection. Less welcome will be the acrimony which seems to have penetrated every aspect of our lives in recent years. In a season where unity and peace are companions of redemption, Elijah’s Cup is at risk of running dry.
It would be easy to believe that the divisions and strife which have become so commonplace will remain outside of most homes as the dignity of Passover prevails. However, the idea that a side must be chosen and nuance is cowardice is not easily stowed away. Endless news cycles, stoking endless fears challenge the common boundaries of decency. Labels defining that which is Left or Right carry with them countless unkind assumptions. Even the most benign topics of conversation seem to inexorably wend their way toward the hazardous no man’s land of political division. Dialogue, a sacred obligation during the seder, becomes a treacherous exercise. Even the core themes of Passover-liberation, freedom and self-determination-could ignite arguments when brought into contact with the contemporary plight of refugees. Elijah may well enter a home where the raised voices are not carrying joyous hymns but painful recriminations. Briefly reviewing Elijah’s role in Jewish tradition can shed some light on the place of honor accorded to him at the seder.
While the story of Elijah shares many traits with those of the other prophets, namely disobedience, repentance and piety, Elijah stands out for the particularly dramatic manner in which he challenges the people of Israel. In defiance of a culture which had forgotten its core values, Elijah affirms his faith in the traditions which had given him strength. Elijah seems to have gained a reputation as a stalwart man of peace in Jewish legend, further testing those whose anger or vanity had lead them from their obligations to compassion. There is certainly a great deal more to Elijah’s overall portrait, as detailed among the Midrash and Talmud, but the essential point remains. Perhaps it is this tradition which the sages looked to when they devised the arrangement of the Passover seder. Elijah blesses the courtesy of the home with his presence and, hopefully, tidings of Israel’s redemption. The recitation of Israel’s past oppression is contrasted with the undiminished optimism for the future which the prophet embodies.
Beset by new challenges to tradition, Elijah’s place at the table becomes a pivotal one. Though free of physical bondage, we find ourselves increasingly constrained by rigid ideas and unsympathetic attitudes. Elijah’s seat must take the place where the petty divisions and fruitless arguments would otherwise take root. The open door must exhale all personal grievance and discontent, exchanging them for the encompassing sense of peace and tranquility with which Passover is imbued. The Four Questions may compel us to consider why Passover is different, but Elijah invites us to demonstrate those differences through our actions. We are invited to dine in a place where dignity, justice and an aspiration to live a life of quality are at the center. In liberating ourselves from our most limiting perspectives, we take a seat at this table. In so doing, we help Elijah to truly redeem the Jewish people from the most intractable chains devised: those of our own creation.