Shunning Elijah

My 4-year old grandson is a bit shy when it comes to crowds.

He doesn’t like a lot being the center of attention, especially when a lot of people are looking at him. So, it was not surprising that he was most uncomfortable at having to stand on stage during his pre-school’s Passover play this past week. While he refused to say his one line, at least he stayed up on stage, without fleeing into the arms of his parents in the audience.

When the play was over, I gave him a big hug and offered some words of comfort and encouragement. I suggested that we might sing some of the songs he learned for the play at our seder. He nodded enthusiastically, but then added,

“But, Zeyde, I don’t want to Elijah to come”.

“?????!!!!!!”

You could have knocked me over with a chometz feather!

Opening the door for Elijah is arguably the Seder’s climactic moment. In that moment we hope that the Redemption remembered and celebrated on Seder night will be repeated– even amplified– when Elijah arrives to announce the dawning of the Messianic age. To be sure, after centuries of sometimes patient/sometimes frustrated waiting, many of us have become understandably skeptical that the promise will ever be fulfilled. Nevertheless, when we invoke Elijah, we often add the phrase “bimheyra v’yameynu yavo aylenu”– may he come speedily in our own time. Like Charlie Brown, we hope that this time the football won’t be yanked away. Even in our skepticism, we still have hope.

But being skeptical is not the same as shunning. While we moderns may have doubts that Elijah will ever really show up, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone express the desire that he not show up at all!

Being simultaneously surprised and curious, I decided heed the wisdom of “out of the mouths of babes…”, and investigate further:

“Does he scare you?”

“Yes”

“What is it about Elijah that scares you?”

“I don’t know”.

“Is it his beard?

“No.”

“Is it how he dresses? “

“Uhhh. Kinda.”

“How he talks?

“He doesn’t really talk, Zeyde.”

“Sooo.. what is it?”

“I don’t know…but I just don’t want him to come.”

Four-year olds may not be able to rationally articulate their feelings, but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t heartfelt…and therefore deserving of some consideration. After reflecting on the conversation for a bit, I believe my grandson may be on to something (although he doesn’t know it yet).

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat ha-Gadol, “the great Shabbat”. Why is this Shabbat greater than all other Shabbatot? In truth, it isn’t. It gets its name from the last verse in the Haftarah for this Shabbat, which itself is the last chapter of Malachi, the last prophetic book:

Hiney Anokhi sholeyach lakhem et Eliyah haNavi lifney bo yom Hashem hagadol v’hanorah.

“Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful/terrible/awesome day of the Lord.”

This verse is the prooftext for the ancient tradition that Elijah will be the herald of Messiah’s coming. And while it offers the promise of the long-awaited redemption, there is a bit of a dark side to this prophecy, captured in the word “norah”—translated as “dreadful”, “terrible” or “awesome”. This adjective is a source for the Sages’ understanding that before the ultimate Redemption, the world would experience a time of great suffering and breakdown, known chevlei haMashiach”, the “birthpangs” of the Messiah.

But thinking about my grandson’s comment, I wonder if the Messianic age itself—as awesomely wonderful as it will be—will also be, in some ways, dreadfully painful?

Think about it. Passover is the season when we not only celebrate our first Redemption, but also anticipate the next, ultimate redemption—which is why we open the door for Elijah. But, as awesomely wonderful as it was, y’tsiat Mitrayim, leaving Egypt, was also a dreadfully painful experience! Why do we eat matzah on Passover? Because we left hastily and didn’t have time to make provisions. And not only did we not have time to make provisions for our bodies, we also didn’t have time to prepare our spirits. Our bodies may have been free, but our spirits were still enslaved, anxious and scared. Indeed, the numerous episodes in the Torah following the Exodus— the Golden Calf, the spies’ failure of nerve, Korah’s rebellion, not to mention the constant complaining and wishing to return to Egypt—all attest to an immediate “shock to the system” that gave way to a chronic anxiety which often follows a sudden change of the status quo. As we all know, it was an anxiety that took a generation to get over.

So, if our first Redemption, was awesomely wonderful but also dreadfully painful, might we not entertain the possibility that the next one might very well be similar: awesomely wonderful because our lives will change dramatically, and dreadfully painful because our lives will change dramatically?

One reason the story of our ancestors’ response to being redeemed continues to resonate with us is because we are like them: even as we see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, we too are ambivalent about being free. Even as we express the hope that change will liberate us, we prefer to maintain the status quo that is safe and, like Egypt, familiar. Indeed, when the anticipated change does come, our fear and anxiety may cause us to shun it.

With this in mind, we would do well to consider what may really be in store for us if/when Elijah shows up at our doors: a day that will be both “awesomely wonderful” and “dreadfully terrible”; a day for which we may want to be better prepared.

Like my grandson, we also may not be too keen on Elijah’s coming just yet. I pray that he’ll grow out of that feeling. I also pray that we will too.

About the Author
Cary Kozberg currently serves as Rabbi at Temple Sholom Springfield Ohio and as the Jewish chaplain at Kensington Place in Columbus, Ohio. He is a nationally recognized expert in the field of spirituality and aging and is principal/owner of Side by Side: Life Transitions Coaching for the Later Years, offering pastoral and spiritual help to older adults and their families.
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