Still Waiting for Elijah

This past Shabbat, as we read Parashat Metzora, we came to understand that the odd spiritual impurity mentioned in Torah is not just about skin disease or emission or discharge. This impurity can spread to clothing, to walls, and to homes. This is a scriptural reminder that this isn’t really about a skin disease at all! Rather, this is about how we let societal spiritual impurities – how we let injustice – spread. How quickly we let the spiritual impurities all around us spread. The Torah portion doesn’t simply comment on these spiritual impurities. It gives us instructions as to the cleaning ritual that is to take place to rid ourselves, and society, of these impurities.

Coincidentally, at this time of year leading up to Passover, we are supposed to rid ourselves of Chametz. Similarly, we clean our homes and our offices; we even clean our cars! But this symbolic and ritual cleaning is about more than just ridding ourselves of leavened products. We rid ourselves of our ego. We rid ourselves of that which puffs us up. We rid ourselves of societal spiritual impurities. But if we only do so ritually, if we only do so symbolically, then we miss the point entirely.

We recite at the Passover seder table:

Kol Dichfin yeitei v’yeichol, kol ditzrich yeittei v’yifsach . Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in the New American Haggadah:

Precisely because it is the most fundamental form of charity, this invitation to the hungry seems empty and hypocritical. Why? Because it comes too late. By the time we read this passage, we are seated, our hands are washed, the wine is poured, the table is crowded with fine dishes.. And only now we invite the poor to join us?

If we acknowledge an issue, but don’t do anything about it, what’s the point? If we half-heartedly or hypocritically ritually offer to help those in need, are we then just letting the impurities of society, the injustices of society — those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are in dire straits – continue to spread? Are we welcoming those in need to our Passover seders, but not really? Are we making ourselves feel better as if we tried, when we really didn’t?

This past Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, we also read a special Haftarah reading. This reading, taken from chapter 3 of the book of Malachi, recalls Elijah the prophet. We even repeat the penultimate verse, making it the last statement of the reading, leaving us with the taste of Elijah’s coming, something that we again ritually and symbolically hope for at our seder tables.

KosEliyahuJudaism teaches that Elijah will announce the coming of the messianic era, and with it, true freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice, freedom from the shackles of poverty and food insecurity, freedom from the spiritual impurities of society. Recalling Elijah in the haftarah and again in just a few days at our seder tables is our symbolic gesture hoping for an end to the spiritual impurities of injustice that plague us. Using the imagery of Elijah, the Talmud teaches us an important lesson.

In Sanhedrin 98a, we learn of the encounter between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah. Rabbi Yehoshua meets the prophet and asks when the messianic era of justice and equality will come. Elijah instructs him to ask the Messiah who is waiting at the gates of the city, among the lepers and the infirmed, among the homeless, poor, excluded, and forgotten. This messianic figure tells Rabbi Yehoshua that this messianic era will come today. Yet, when it does not, Rabbi Yehoshua returns to Elijah and asks for an explanation. Elijah the prophet explains by quoting a verse from Psalms:

Today – if only you will listen to God’s voice (Ps. 95:7).

Maybe the possibility of messianic redemption is always upon us, a time for freedom from the spiritual impurities of society, but all too often we do not truly listen – we speak and we recite, we ritually acknowledge that we care about those in need. But then we don’t do anything about it. We do not listen to God’s voice, to the cries of those in need as God’s cries. Rabbi Yehoshua went to the infirm, the poor, and the suffering at the city gates and ignored them to only speak to whom Elijah called the messiah. We say let all who are hungry come and eat at our seders and then expect this symbolic Elijah to swoop in when we really haven’t done our parts to help those in need.

Before we ritually invite Elijah into our homes and our seder tables, we need to do a lot more than simply ritually opening up our homes and our hearts to those in need. Just as we clean our spaces to rid our homes of spiritual impurity, we need to rid society of the injustice and inequality that plague us as well. May this be a Passover in which we strive to free all from the injustices of our society.

Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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