|Read Rabbi Barras’ Monthly Reflections — “Rav Bar Oz”|
In this space each month, we feature the writings of one of the members of our Beth Am Clergy. This month we invite Rabbi Rachel Greengrass to share some thoughts with you. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments.
One Guest Always Invited to the Seder
This month we celebrate Passover where we relive and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. The first Seder is described in our Torah as being held in Egypt before we even experience our liberation. Since then, our people have been retelling the tale, eating our pesach, matzah, and marror and blending tradition along with innovations to bring the story to life and to bring its lessons to the present day.
The largest Seder I have experienced is our Temple Beth Am Second Day Seder. The smallest — a Seder for two when my husband and I were just dating in college (also my first vegetarian Seder). But there is one person who is invited to every Seder, who attends every Seder, and who drinks a bit of wine at each Seder — Elijah.
Elijah is a fascinating character. His story in the Hebrew bible only lasts a few chapters, however his encounter with God on his pilgrimage to Horeb, where he learns that God is not in the storm, the earthquake, or the lightning but is “the still, small voice” is still how we talk about God today. Elijah was taken by God without dying. And according to legend, that is how he still attends every bris and every Seder. He was worried in life, and in after life, that the Jewish people will abandon God. So, he visits us to see that we are still here, still Jewish, still faithful, even 29 centuries after his “death.”
What I love about Elijah are the folk stories told about him. These folk stories magically capture lessons from Passover and from Elijah’s quest to ensure that we live out our faith in bringing justice and kindness to our world. I. L. Pertz wrote a classic tale The Magician, which I encourage you to read in preparation for your Seder. I would love to share one that shows our own power to make the world a better place — a summary of Elijah the Prophet in Minsk by Yitzchak Buxbaum.
One year a student approached the Baal Shem Tov and asked him: “Rebbe,” the student said, “this year before the holidays I want to see Elijah the Prophet.”
The Baal Shem Tov replied immediately. “It is very simple,” he said, “First get two boxes; fill one of them with food, and the other with children’s clothes. Then, before Rosh HaShanah, travel to Minsk. On the outskirts of town, just about where the forest begins, there is a run-down old house, almost falling apart. When you find the house, don’t knock on the door right away; instead, stand outside and listen for a while. Then, just before candle lighting, knock on the door, and ask if you can come in.”
The student went home and meticulously followed all of the Baal Shem Tov’s instructions. He filled boxes with food and clothing, he went to Minsk, he found the dilapidated house, he arrived a half hour before sunset, and waited outside the door listening. He could hear children crying. “Mama,” they said, “we’re hungry! It’s almost Yom Tov, and we don’t even have decent clothing to wear to the synagogue.” The mother responded, “Trust in God. It’s a new year. God will send Elijah the Prophet to us, and you will have everything you need.”
Finally, the student knocked on the door. When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for Rosh HaShanah. The woman protested, “I don’t even have food!” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have enough food for all of us.”
The woman prepared the food, and they all sat down to a fine Rosh HaShanah dinner. Afterwards the student opened the box of clothing, and the children took what they needed: a shirt, trousers, a dress, a petticoat, a hat, a coat, a pair of socks. The family went to bed happy, but the student couldn’t sleep. All night long he lay awake, waiting for Elijah the Prophet. He stayed for two days, until the holiday was over, waiting and waiting, but Elijah never came. When Yom Tov was over, he left, disappointed, and went home.
The next day he found the Baal Shem Tov. “Master,” he said, “I went and did as you told me, but Elijah never came!”
“Did you do exactly as I said?” the Baal Shem asked.
“I did!” replied the student.
“And you didn’t see him?”
“Are you sure?”
“Well then, said the Baal Shem Tov, “You’ll have to go back for Yom Kippur. Do everything exactly the same way: bring food, find the house, arrive an hour before sunset, and stand in front of the door and listen for a while before you knock.”
The student went on his way without high hopes. He arrived in Minsk an hour before Kol Nidrei, the holiest night of the year. He easily found the house again and stood at the door waiting and listening. Again, he heard the children crying: “Mama, we haven’t eaten all day. How can we fast on Yom Kippur? How will we break our fast tomorrow night?”
The mother said, “Do you remember how you were crying 10 days ago, before Rosh HaShanah? Crying that you had no food or clothes, and what did I tell you? I told you that God will send Elijah the Prophet, and Elijah will bring you food, and clothing! Wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come? Didn’t he bring the food and clothing? I promise you, I promise you, that Elijah will come now too, and you will have food to eat!”
And then the student understood what his Master, the Baal Shem Tov, had meant. And he knocked on the door.