<I>Shabbat HaGadol</i>: Elijah's Faulty Faith

Elijah will attend every Passover Seder.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
The Sabbath before Passover, which is known as "The Great Sabbath" (Shabbat HaGadol), is dedicated to Elijah the Prophet who - as we read in the Haftarah - will herald the arrival of the "great and awesome day of the Lord," the period of redemption (Malachi 3:23). Elijah is one of the most fascinating and ubiquitous personalities of the Bible, which describes him as having been "translated into heaven": this provides the midrash with the opportunity to
Elijah can no longer be a prophet of Israel because he has lost his faith in the Jewish people.
say that Elijah never died, but rather continually travels between Heaven and Earth, visiting important personages and sowing seeds of loving kindness and good works.

We all become especially acquainted with Elijah since our tradition suggests that he is present at every circumcision ceremony; indeed, the 8-day-old baby is ceremoniously placed on a special chair known as the "seat of Elijah." He is also at every family Seder, when the door is opened and a special wine goblet is filled specifically for Elijah the prophet. What prompts the midrash to invite Elijah's presence specifically on the two occasions just mentioned? What does this teach us about Elijah, as well as about the Jewish people in general?

Just about everyone is aware of the climax of Elijah's career, when he ministered as prophet of Israel during the first Temple period under the reign of the wicked and adulterous King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. There is a terrible drought in the Land of Israel; Elijah is determined to prove the existence and involvement of the only one and true G-d of the universe, Lord of Israel and the world. Elijah stages a magnificent contest atop the majestic Mount Carmel in Haifa; a contest between the prophets of the idol Ba'al and the prophet of the G-d of Israel in the presence of no less than 600,000 Jews at the bottom of the mountain.

First, the prophets of Ba'al cry out to their idol without receiving any response whatsoever; then, Elijah calls out to the Lord G-d of Israel and the world - and a fire descends from heaven consuming the whole burnt offering offered to G-d. The Lord emerges triumphant and all of the Jews shout in loud acclamation, "The Lord, He is G-d!" The false prophets of Ba'al are killed and the much-needed rains begin to fall. Elijah and his G-d have won the day (Kings I, 18).

But then, in the very next chapter of the Book of Kings, comes a most unexpected turn of events. Queen Jezebel sends a messenger to inform Elijah that in 24 hours he will suffer the same fate as the slain prophets of Ba'al, and Elijah flees to Mount Sinai where he begs G-d to take his soul. What causes Elijah to give up so quickly and so completely? At the heels of such a public triumph, why does he not stand up to Jezebel and taste the fruits of his victory?

I believe that the answer lies in the fact that Jezebel informed him that he would be killed in the next 24 hours. Why did she not execute him immediately? Elijah understands that Jezebel is delivering a profound insight into the mentality of the Israelites. She couldn't possibly execute Elijah immediately, when he was still basking in the halo of his miracle; however, she understands only too well that in 24 hours the halo will be dimmed, the people will forget, and the legal power of king and queen will enable them to get away with anything, including Elijah's execution. And the proof that Jezebel is correct lies in the fact that during the 24 hours following the miracle, no change whatsoever took place within the lifestyle or mentality of the Israelites.
G-d is only to be found in the still, small voice of daily prayer and Torah study, of kindness and good deeds.

Yes, they may have proclaimed G-d's ascendance on Mount Carmel, but the very next morning very few individuals went to minyan or daf yomi who hadn't been there the day before. And very few families switched their children from public schools to religious schools. As G-d visually explains to Elijah, "Steven Spielberg productions" do not transform people's hearts or change people's minds. G-d is not to be found in fire nor in thunder nor in rushing winds; G-d is only to be found in the still, small voice of daily prayer and Torah study, of kindness and good deeds.

Elijah remains frustrated, because his disappointment with the Israelites after his great extravaganza atop Mount Carmel makes him feel that there is no hope for ultimate Jewish repentance. He cries out to G-d , "I have zealously acted, as a zealot for the Lord G-d of Hosts; but the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, have destroyed your altars and have killed your prophets by the sword; I now remain alone and they wish also to take my soul." (Kings I, 19)

The Almighty then takes Elijah up in a cloud into the supernal heavens, appointing the prophet Elisha as his successor. Elijah can no longer be a prophet of Israel because he has lost his faith in the Jewish people. Indeed, no one can be a spiritual leader of Israel unless he believes in Israel's ability to return to G-d and to redeem the world. But since Elijah never actually dies, the Almighty charges him with a mission.

In effect, G-d says to him: 'You declared that the Israelites have forsaken their covenant with Me? You will see how wrong you are! You will attend every circumcision, which is the expression of My covenant and which symbolizes the willingness of every Jew to shed blood in commitment to the Jewish future. And you will attend every Passover Seder, when every Jew exclaims his faith in ultimate freedom and redemption, as he vows to spend next year in Jerusalem. And through these ceremonies, you will see how parents and children unite in building a Jewish future based on a Jewish past, and through your very presence during these two pivotal and crucial ceremonies, you will enable "the hearts of the children to be turned towards their parents and the hearts of the parents to be turned towards their children." (Malachi 3, 24)'

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