Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?
Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE. But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.
It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One. He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)
With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world. With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.
Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us. One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!
By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:
- The end of the oppression of the Jews
- A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
- The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
- The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity
People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah. The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.
As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work. Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago. Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.
When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.” Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.