Op-Ed: Elijah, The Gang's All Here!
There’s one guest we all invite to our Seders, but why him?
I recall a children’s book for Pesach entitled, ‘Not yet, Elijah’. In the story, all the members of a typical Jewish family are seated around the festive Seder table inside the house, but one character remains outside, anxiously awaiting his cue to enter: Elijah the Prophet. During the course of the book, Elijah peeks through the window and paces outside nervously awaiting for the big moment when he can finally make his grand entrance. The story describes the main events of the Seder, during which Elijah has a few ‘false starts’, trying to enter before it’s his time, and each time he tries to enter prematurely, the scolding refrain, ‘Not yet, Elijah!’ is repeated again and again by the family.
Why does Eliyahu Hanavi come to our Seder anyway? The Prophet Eliyahu, symbol of the humble wayfarer, is invited to enter the home through the symbolic opening of the front door to the house towards the end of the Seder. The Book of Prophets states that Eliyahu the Prophet never really died but instead was taken to Heaven in a flaming chariot. Being a Prophet, Eliyahu has continued to deliver messages from G-d to this day. Jewish tradition believes that Eliyahu visits every Passover Seder that takes place around the world. The Cup of Eliyahu, usually a goblet that is filled with red wine, is confirmation of the hope of Eliyahu’s arrival into the house.
Since the Book of Prophets says that Eliyahu the Prophet is the forerunner of the arrival of the Mashiach (Messiah), opening the door for Eliyahu means that Jews hope that Eliyahu will arrive to mark the coming of the Mashiach and the ultimate redemption for the Jewish people and for all humankind. More specifically, the coming of the Mashiach will usher in the age of permanent peace, freedom, and tranquility for both the Jewish people and for all humanity.
That’s all very nice, but perhaps there is more to it than that.
Eliyahu is also present at every Brit Milah. A chair is usually set aside for Eliyahu, expressing hope for the future. Some commentators suggest that Eliyahu wrongly berated the Israelites for forsaking the covenant, and so he must attend all Jewish ritual circumcisions (the sign of the Abrahamic covenant) in atonement. Some commentators suggest that Eliyahu comes to the Pesach Seder for the very same reason, so we can show him that we are still keeping G-d’s covenant.
But we find yet another mention of Eliyahu at the conclusion of the special Haftorah read on Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Pesach. "Behold - I send you Eliyahu Hanavi, before the great and awesome day of the LORD. He will restore the heart of fathers to children and the heart of children to their fathers . . ." (Malachi 3:23- 24).
What does that mean? How will Eliyahu restore and mend family relations between parents and children. And why davka on Seder night?
One truly unique aspect about the Pesach Seder is that we are commanded to eat our meal in one place. No going from house to house (as was common practice in olden days) from course to course. On Seder night, everyone stays put. If you have teenagers, you’ve probably experienced, more often than not, that during a Friday night or Shabbat afternoon meal one or more of them will request to excuse themselves, to quickly say the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) while the rest of the diners have not yet tasted their dessert, because a friend has come to whisk them off to an informal gathering of friends or classmates or, for younger children, simply to go play. Most parents are already quite used to this.
But one night a year, one meal a year, nobody goes anywhere. Nobody gets up to leave early. Nobody pops in to take your children away. We are all together on this night.
And this is where I believe Eliyahu comes in. He doesn’t enter at the start of, or even in the middle of, the Seder, he comes at the very end. He comes to see if everyone is present and accounted for. He comes to see if parents, grandparents, and children are all still at the table together. He comes to make sure that no one has ‘split’ on this special night.
True, Eliyahu’s mission is to restore the hearts of children to their parents and the hearts of parents to their children, but when we send our children to go open the door at the climax of the Seder to let Eliyahu the Prophet in, and he looks around and sees that everyone (parents, children, grandparents) all still seated around the Seder table, we are in essence telling him, ‘Eliyahu, you need not worry, everyone is here together. Your work is already underway. We’ve already started healing the rifts between parents and children tonight. So, now you can go get started on your other mission - and bring about the coming of the Moshiach!’
Perhaps, on Seder night, instead of saying, ‘Not yet, Elijah’ we should say ‘Come on in, Elijah. The gang’s all here!’