Chag Sameach Everyone,
Each Pesach, we set an extra cup of wine on the table for Eliyahu. It is such a good feeling being able to stand up and stretch our legs, to go and open the front door for some fresh air, and begin singing the classic song ‘Eliyahu HaNavi’, Elijah the Prophet (He is a prophet not an Avatar). Until now, I did not understand the importance of inviting him to our table so:
- Who was/is Eliyahu?
- Why do we invite him to our Seder? and,
- Why, at the time of inviting Eliyahu, do we ask Hashem, to “pour out his wrath over the nations”?
Eliyahu is a prophet in Jewish scripture, known for his unwavering devotion to God and his willingness to take bold actions that even God’s patients is tested by Eliyahu.
The first time we encounter Eliyahu is in the book of Kings. He appears as a passionate prophet, with a wild, warrior side. However, he is completely committed to monotheism. In the book of Kings, the Jewish Kingdom splits into two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Juda and the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of Israel are seen to be wavering in their faith. The king at the time, king Ahav began to worship both the “Israelite God”, Hashem, and the “Canaanite god’, Baal. Eliyahu does not like this at all, as it goes against all of his beliefs and declares that there will be no rain in the Kingdom of Israel except when the people stop worshipping idols and he decides it should come. He knows that if the people do not follow God’s commandments, there will be a drought. In this case, Eliyahu effectively places himself as an intermediary between Ahav and God, telling the king that he holds the key to his reconciliation with God.
God is not pleased with Eliyahu’s actions, and He sends Eliyahu on a solitary journey to find a widow who will give him food. When he eventually encounters the widow, she actually does not have food. Eliyahu, hungry after a long journey, prays to God and a miracle happens that like a feast in the great hall of Hogwarts, they have enough food to last a lifetime. The widow also has a sick son, and through prayer, Eliyahu heals him. Eliyahu emerges from this experience more attuned to God’s power and with renewed confidence in his ability to perform miracles.
With this renewed confidence, Eliyahu goes back to the Kingdom of Israel and orchestrates a powerful showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, asking them to call to their god ‘Baal’ to sacrifice a bull, that they chose, in the centre of the mountain. They try and fail. Eliyahu then calls out to God to send fire down to consume his sacrifice and prove that the prophets of Baal are actually frauds. The people of Israel declare their faith in the One True God, and the rains finally come. However, Eliyahu’s success is short-lived, as he is threatened by Ahav’s wife and forced to go into exile. Eliyahu runs away and goes to Mount Sinai where he spoke with God. God said, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” This may imply, “You should be with your people. Why did you run off here to the desert?” Eliyahu cries out to God saying that all he does is fail and wants God to take his life. God instructs him, “Go appoint your successor.” Essentially, he gets fired as a prophet and it seems as if Eliyahu may lose his life.
Later in the book of Kings, Eliyahu is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, in a fiery chariot. The wording in the text does not imply that he dies but rather removed from the physical world to live in the spiritual world.
That is the end of the physical being of Eliyahu HaNavi.
Eliyahu, becomes in our tradition, suspended between heaven and earth. His job as an agent of God is not over, not only in the rabbinic imagination but in the prophetic literature as well. Eliyahu completely transforms from someone who would kill anyone not loyal to God to someone who will be seen as kind and loving. Eliyahu will no longer give up hope in the Jewish people from repenting from their evil ways, as the he is now the agent of God who shows up every time the Jewish people actively affirm the covenant. Eliyahu changes from being the only one who believes in God to one who will usher in the Moshiach, the Messiah and the Messianic age. Eliyahu’s job is to spiritually help the Jewish people actively renew their covenant with God.
So what is the connection to the Seder? There is actually no evidence of welcoming Eliyahu to the seder, pouring a cup for him and opening the door. But in the seder we say “Let all those who are hungry come and eat.”
Then in the 11th century, one rabbi decided that “Passover is a time of redemption, and the messiah is the ultimate redemption, so we’re leaving the door open because we hope Elijah will come, and we want to make sure we go out to meet him right away.” The tradition begins not with opening the door so Eliyahu can come in, it’s opening the door, so we’ll go out and greet him. Then the next step as any good Jew would do is, “Okay, if he shows up, he’ll come in, and if he’s coming in, he’s going to need a cup of wine!” That’s basically the origin of it.
However, a deeper meaning is that Eliyahu comes in order to see the Jewish people telling the Pesach story and passing it on to generation after generation. It is as if God is telling Eliyahu, “You had little faith in our people. But I, God, refuse to give up on them and will now make you, Eliyahu, see with your own eyes their joyous affirmations of faith and covenant.
No sooner than we open the door for him and sing ‘Eliyahu HaNavi’ we continue with this part of the liturgy:
Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Yaakov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25)! You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66).
Unlike Eliyahu’s old story, here, in the seder we ask God directly to punish those nonbelievers who are specifically out to hurt the Jewish people. This juxtaposition of Eliyahu shepherding peace and God pouring out his wrath is by design and perhaps reflects the message of the Haggadah that only God can redeem us. If we are suffering, we should turn our hearts towards, not away from God.
This year, As we open the door for Eliyahu, let us indeed hope that he gets to bring us to a truly complete and everlasting redemption, whatever it may be and may we celebrate Pesach next year in Jerusalem.