I often write about how Israeli society is unbelievably “children friendly”, in every way imaginable. Even during the most hectic time of year, in the week ahead of Passover when adults are busy cleaning their homes and getting rid of “hametz” (unleavened products), Israel somehow finds time for children activities. Yesterday, my wife insisted that I take Tevel Sela, our 4-year old daughter, to the local community center for an art’s project and play. As Tevel Sela colored and painted, the most popular Passover songs that we sing at the “Seder” played in the background.
Among them was also a popular song that we also sing every “Motzei Shabbat”, Saturday night just after nightfall after we bid fair-well to the day of rest and transition back to our weekday activities. This heart-wrenching melody sung by Efraim Goldstein (later changed to Efraim De Zahav) was reintroduced to Israel’s “Reshet Bet” radio station in 2005. Played every “Motzei Shabbat” following the 9PM news, just before the sport’s broadcast, the song almost competes with Israel’s National Anthem “Hatikvah” for the most well-known hit. The lyrics of the song speak of Elijah the prophet who will come to us speedily in our days with the Messiah, the son of David. Since according to the bible, Elijah never died but was instead taken up to heaven by the wind, the tradition developed that he will also magically return one day.
Every year on the 1st night of Passover, Jews gather with family and friends around the table to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt while eating the corresponding symbolic foods. This ritual, the Passover Seder, is undoubtedly among the most widely observed rituals where even the self-proclaimed secular find meaning in all of the Seder’s richness. The Passover Seder often goes until the wee hours of the morning. Towards the end of the Seder, a cup of wine is poured for Elijah the Prophet, and the front door of the home is even opened in anticipation of his arrival. For children, this is one of the highlights of the Seder.
At a certain point during yesterday’s performance, the actress went behind the stage, and the news broadcast announced Elijah’s arrival. A few minutes later, Elijah appeared as an old man covered in white with a long beard. Elijah went around to each of the children and told them that he remembered being in all of their homes on the night of the Seder. For the first time, it occurred to me that Elijah is essentially the Jewish equivalent of Santa Clause!
I have always favored the rational aspects in Judaism versus the “fairy tail” traditions. The Rambam, also known as Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and Jewish philosophers of all times, was strongly on the side of rationalism. Unfortunately, many people today, perhaps with good reason, have the misconception that religion, including Judaism, is mainly superstitious and irrational. Although “rational Judaism” is a cause that is close to my heart about which I have written and G-d willing will continue to write, I have recently come to appreciate the rationale behind a certain aspect of what is perceived as “fairy-tale” Judaism.
Although it is often overlooked, Elijah was forced to take an early retirement as a prophet because of his zealotry and critique of the Israelites. After gathering the 450 “Prophets of Baal”, Israelites who had abandoned serving the G-d of Israel in favor of the Canaanite G-d ‘Baal’ on Mount Carmel, he proved that only the Israelite G-d is worth serving. The false prophets were all killed. Elijah is then forced to flee for his life to the desert, and calls out to G-d for help. “Your people have abandoned your covenant!” he bemoans. According to the Midrash, G-d responds “You say “YOUR” people and “YOUR” covenant! These are MY people and MY covenant”. In other words, G-d is saying to Elijah “Why are you sticking your nose in my business”? The Midrash ends with the powerful words “Who needs a zealot like you Elijah?” This marks the end of Elijah’s prophetic career.
I have often heard the quote that “today’s authors serve the same function as the biblical prophets”. There are some authors and journalists today, especially Jews, who make a career of critiquing the Jewish people and Israeli society. They always find reasons to be negative. On the other hand, there are authors who always look for the positive and write favorably about the Jewish people and Israel. I prefer to be in the company of these writers! Perhaps the real symbolism behind Elijah’s visit to our Passover Seder and every Motzei Shabbat is to make the statement that although he was critical of the Israelites, for the past couple thousand years, we have continued to perform the commandments of the G-d of Israel, in spite of all of the trials and tribulations of history. No, this is not “fairy-tale” Judaism, but a profound statement of historical reality.
Picture from Flickr.com
Eric Grosser is a native of East Liverpool Ohio, and received his B.A from the Ohio State University and M.B.A from Bar-Ilan University. Eric is a certified Israel Tour Guide and founder of Holy Land Escape. He lives with his wife Einav Grosser and six children in Rehovot, Israel, and writes extensively, on current events and every-day life in modern Israel.