As the pre-Passover frenzy accelerates we should take pause to marvel at the sight of a nation galvanizing to prepare for the coming festival. In the furthest corners of the earth Jews are coming in droves to benefit from the sparse supplies imported for the festival. Boxes of matzo, jars of gefilte fish, and most importantly, chocolate without the offending soy lecithin, are snatched from the shelves. The matzo ball mix sold out in the first hour of the Passover sale, although bottles of liquid gold (oil made from a non-legume source) still fill the shelves, their prohibitive price driving customers to find alternatives. Sales of cleaning supplies at local supermarkets have spiked, and questions related to products and Passover cleaning have been steadily coming in. More than three millennia ago our ancestors witnessed great miracles during and after their exit from Egypt. Now we are witnessing miracles that parallel those of yore. How did Passover come to command the attention and cultural observance of Jews over and above other Jewish events? How do we explain this impressive phenomenon?
As kids, we would always watch closely for any signs that the wine in Elijah’s cup was diminishing. It is customary to pour a fifth glass of wine – which we don’t drink – toward the end of the Passover Seder. We refer to this cup as the “Cup of Elijah. The reason for this fifth cup is that we don’t know whether a fifth cup is necessary on Seder night. The four cups we drink correspond to the four terms of redemption noted in the Torah. “I shall take you out from Egypt,” “I shall save you from their servitude,” “I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm,” and, “I shall take you to Me as a people.” A fifth phrase follows: “I shall bring you to the land…” The sages disputed whether this fifth term is included in the terms of redemption and therefore merits a corresponding cup of wine during the Seder. The dispute remains unresolved and it is left for Elijah to clarify at the time the Messiah comes. Since Elijah is the one we who will clarify this, the fifth cup has his name attached to it.
Many of us retain the perception that cup is being poured on behalf of Elijah, however. For this reason Jewish children, the world over, strain their tired eyes, hoping to notice the wine in the cup diminishing as Elijah drinks. There is no basis to think that Elijah drinks. However, the door is opened for Elijah just at the time the fifth cup is poured, and the tradition that Elijah visits every Seder further strengthens the perception that Elijah’s cup is actually poured for him.
The Book of Kings relates that during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Elijah served as the prophet. Elijah was very critical of Ahab’s practices, as religion had no place in Ahab’s life or his administration of the kingdom. Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, was Ahab’s wife. Different from Ahab, Jezebel was devoutly religious. However, her religion was pagan, and she promoted paganism very successfully throughout the kingdom. Following the rebuild of Jericho, which was commissioned by Ahab, Elijah gave in to his frustrations and decreed that there should be no rain in the kingdom without his intervention. Elijah then escaped to live in solitude, depressed by the state of the people.
For three years a drought plagued the country, and the people suffered greatly. Ahab set out in search of Elijah just as Elijah was on his return. Elijah proposed that a public showdown between the pagan prophets and himself should take place on Mt. Carmel to prove once and for all that the Lord is God. At the ensuing event, the pagan prophets prayed all day in the hopes their gods would cause fire to consume their offering. When the day was nearly over and all the pagan efforts had failed, Elijah offered a short prayer to the Lord and his offering was consumed by a great fire that descended from the heavens. Having gained the support of the people Elijah had the pagan prophets killed. He celebrated the newfound faith of the people by running before the chariot of Ahab as the sky darkened with rainclouds. His elation, however, was short-lived. Jezebel was furious that Elijah had killed her prophets and she vowed that Elijah would be executed the very next day. Seeing that the people’s support of him was temporal, and that Jezebel would have no trouble fulfilling her pledge, Elijah fled again to the hills.
In his depression Elijah complained to God that he alone had remained faithful to the Lord. Elijah was rebuked by God for giving up on Ahab and the people of Israel. He was fired from his role as prophet, and told to anoint his successor Elisha. The Midrashic tradition relates that Elijah was consigned from that time to bear witness to the continued faithfulness of the Jewish people. For all subsequent generations Elijah was to attend every single circumcision to see with his own eyes that the Jewish people remained true to their traditions. For the same reason Elijah attends every single Passover Seder, bearing witness to the folly of his claims. The Lord never gives up on his people, and, despite some ups and downs, the nation of Israel will forever remain faithful to God. This is what Elijah is doing at our Seder. This is what we need to remember as we open the door during our Seder (although there are other reasons for opening the door). It is a testament to our continued dedication to our national mission, our fulfillment of the role God has given us to play in this world. The words of the prophet, appearing in the Haftarah read on the Shabbat preceding Passover, states, “I, the Lord, have not changed, and you, Israel, are not destroyed.”(Malachi 3:6) Aside from death and taxes, a certainty of life is the continuation of Israel as a nation of God.
The two Jewish observances that arguably retain the highest participation in Jewish life are circumcision and the Passover Seder. Elijah was not given these particular events for naught. These are a testament to our loyalty. At every circumcision we read the words of the prophet, describing the nation of Israel as a hurt and vulnerable woman, wallowing in her own blood on the ground, “…And I said to you, by your blood you shall live, and I said to you by your blood you shall live.” The repetition of the phrase ‘in your blood you shall live” refers to two Mitzvot involving blood, according to our tradition. One Mitzvah is the blood of the circumcision, and the second is the blood of the Passover offering. These two Mitzvot give vitality to our nation, from the blood of these observances we truly live.
Elijah was given a third task. In addition to bearing witness to these observances Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah, announcing to the entire world of the final redemption of the Jewish people. The final verse of the Haftarah states, “Behold, I send my servant Elijah the prophet, before the great and awesome day of the the Lord.” (Malachi 3:23) To correct his earlier despair of his people Elijah will be there to see the ultimate fruition of the people of Israel in their redemption. He will then reveal to us the role of the fifth cup at the Seder.
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