Lately, I’ve been thinking about Elijah the Prophet, or Eliyahu Hanavi. He’s that guy who somehow travels worldwide, to drink all the wine at every Passover seder every year. (What a hangover he must have!) Elijah is also supposed to attend every Jewish boy’s circumcision (brit milah or bris). We sing about him during Havdalah, the short service that separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week. This guy’s all over the place!
Well, he’s both all over the place in Jewish tradition and shrouded in mystery. This is the quirky prophet that never actually died, but instead ascended to heaven. He’s got three separate roles in Jewish tradition.
1) He’s a zealous prophet, reminding people how to behave properly and to remember G-d.
2) He’s known to appear and help those in distress.
3) He’s supposed to announce the coming of the Messiah or the Messianic Age.
(There’s more to Elijah’s roles, depending on what text you study.)
I hadn’t thought much about Elijah as an adult. I’m not big into worrying over the coming of a man on a white donkey (from Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a) or the Messianic Age. However, he makes an appearance in ways that capture my kids’ interest. There’s that mysterious cup on the seder plate, and the song that we sing hoping that this week will be the one where Eliyahu Hanavi shows up to bring about the Messiah’s coming. Even if a kid doesn’t attend a bris too often, he might ask questions about Elijah.
There are a lot of stories that retell rabbinic traditions about Elijah. The most powerful are ones I never forgot from childhood, and which may still be helpful today. The stories seem to align directly with those points above, that adults are already supposed to know.
From the Prophets, we know that Elijah reprimanded others, threatened them with scary stories and told them to shape up. It’s essentially “putting the fear of G-d” into them. Apparently, he was good at this role, as he was sent to do it multiple times. In Jewish folklore, Elijah is the stranger who appears and helps the poor and reminds the wealthy of their failings. It’s this combination of the stranger who appears when you least expect it and the coming of the Messianic Age that I think about most often. Why?
I was taught to try to treat everybody with respect and empathy – because that person might be Elijah. That Elijah could appear at any time, looking like an old lady or a child, a homeless person or an older person with dementia. How we treat people indicates how we’re doing on bringing about a better age, or a Messianic one. When this idea was introduced to me, I remember thinking it sounded weird.
As an adult, it makes more sense because, well, life is weird. Life offers us many opportunities to practise conscious kindness, to do mitzvot (commandments) that help make the world a better place. If we keep doing this “fixing the world” (tikkun olam), well, we might just hear from Elijah.
There was that time when we had a stranger knock at our door. My husband answered it and then told me what happened. It was an indigenous man who didn’t look well. He looked like he had been doing some traveling through back lanes, but he came to the door with our dog’s collar in his hand.
I was immediately anxious. Our dogs are never without their collars and ID tags. However, this man came along, saw the collar in the back lane, clearly beyond the fenced yard. He was worried for the dog. The good news? We called her, and our dog was happy and safe inside. She’d somehow managed to shed her collar and leave it in the back lane without anyone noticing. This kind act made me wonder: Was this Elijah, known for his affinity with dogs? In the Sefer HaAggadah, it’s said that, when dogs are happy for no reason, it’s because Elijah is in the neighbourhood.
Sometimes, one of my kids carefully saves the seat beside him at services for what appears to be an imaginary friend. We joke that he knows Elijah is coming. Instead, it ends up being the friend on her own who needs just one spot or maybe even a stranger, who we then get to welcome to synagogue.
It’s the extra granola bar in my “mom bag,” when I thought someone might need a snack – and, indeed, a hungry person turns up. He needs it to continue onwards. Who knows what that person’s potential will be? That stranger gets a granola bar because, well, he might be Elijah.
This is all mystery and whimsy, if you take a purely Western and scientific view of the world. Yet, most of us acknowledge that we can’t explain why we’re lucky or when misfortune befalls us. Is it because of our behaviour or our efforts to do good in the world? Is it because some people “deserve” misfortune? I think not.
There are amazing people, all around us, who have struggled. Some were homeless, were put in foster care as children, or had addictions. Perhaps they suffered through wars or trauma. This childhood lesson about Elijah has stood me in very good stead because, if you remember that every person has value, every soul is important, it doesn’t matter how the person’s body presents itself. Whatever their clothes or hair look like, that person could be Elijah. Better yet, every person is someone important. It’s up to us to see that light inside, the potential waiting there, and to acknowledge the “other,” as Martin Buber would say. Be ready to offer something, with love and hope, when needed. It could be welcoming someone and offering a seat, a kind word, a thank you for returning a lost item, or a granola bar. Anybody can do this. Remember, that person across from you may be Elijah. The rest? It’s up to you.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.