"Elijah and the Angel," by George Richmond, ca.  1825 (Image/Tate CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
"Elijah and the Angel," by George Richmond, ca. 1825 (Image/Tate CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On this Passover, open the door to better days ahead

Shabbat HaGadol


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Malachi 3:4-24

Growing up, one of my favorite seder rituals was opening the door for Elijah. It takes place toward the end of the evening and traditionally has been a way to keep the children around the table awake and interested. (So I guess it worked!) In Jewish tradition, the Prophet Elijah was the one who would herald the coming of the Messiah. And with his arrival, a better day would dawn.

Imagine how powerful this idea was, particularly in times and places of marginalization and persecution for our people. As the haggadah text puts it: “On this night, we welcome the Prophet Elijah and speak of ancient promise. We reclaim a tradition of dreams. We open wide the door to hope” (“The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah,” Sue Levi Elwell, ed.).

Over the centuries, many have transformed the concept of waiting for the Messiah into what we call a Messianic Age. Rather than a single figure, Elijah’s visit would precede a time when the long-held Jewish ideals of justice, wholeness and peace, both inside and outside of us, would take root and grow. When we hold the door open for Elijah, we affirm that rather than passively waiting for that Messianic Age, we are working toward it. And as we all know, every little bit helps!

We read a special Haftarah portion for this Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol as it’s known, preceding Pesach. The portion is taken from the Prophet Malachi, and these words bring the entire Book of Prophets to a close. “Hinei anochi sholeach lachem et Eliyah hanavi lifnei bo yom Adonai hagadol v’hanora. Behold, I will send you the Prophet Elijah, before the coming of the great and fearful day of God” (Malachi 3:23).

Our ways of hearing God’s voice, and relating to God’s presence, are ever-changing. Looking at the Torah portion of this week, Parashat Tzav, we see a detailed description of the animal sacrifices God commanded the Israelites to perform. I’ll let you in on a little secret, which is that many a rabbi’s heart sinks a little at this time of year, when we are faced once again with plumbing these ancient sacrifices for modern meaning.

But we do. We all do. We find that several categories of offerings are mentioned in Tzav: sin, guilt, well-being. Among them is also a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

In the Talmud the rabbis teach that this particular offering comes not out of a sense of being obliged to make it, but rather from an innate need to offer it. This sacrifice gave the people a chance to experience that shift in dimension that comes from experiencing bounty in our lives, and being well aware of experiencing it in the moment. We have always longed to somehow express that awareness, and that longing continues to this day. These sacrificial rites may not be ones we long to emulate, but we might look at them as the doorways of time, through which our people brought God near. The doorways through which they experienced what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls radical amazement.

The doorways change. Sacrifices have been our doorways, words of the prophets like Malachi have been our doorways, too. What doesn’t change is our need to create such openings. Our longing to be radically amazed from time to time. Back to the image of children who have managed to stay awake to welcome Elijah, the informal ritual that follows is intently watching the goblet of wine set aside on the seder table for him. Has the wine gone down? Is there less of it? How about now?! Has Elijah really been to our house?

Let our faith tell us that just maybe he has. Anything is possible. Like the day Malachi prophecies, there is greatness to our days, and sometimes fear as well. Through them all, we continue creating doorways through which God’s presence might enter our lives.

For all of us, may the coming festival of Pesach be a time of joy, of freedom from constraint, and of doors flung open to the ancient prophecy of that enduring voice: “Behold,” that voice still says to each of us. “A better day awaits.”

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at [email protected].