What Does Elijah At Our Door Symbolize This Year?
Do we ask him to wear a mask – again? Is he heralding better times or warning us to be more vigilant?
Jerusalem’s Old City at night: a start-up nation rooted in ancient history.
Jerusalem — As we approach Passover this year, we are in emotional overload.
Still reeling from the lingering physical and psychological trauma of Covid, we will once again strive to celebrate the annual festival of freedom while still feeling less than liberated in our hearts.
Further, for all the technical advances of the modern age, we sense we are moving back in history, grappling with a horrific war in Europe that recalls the savagery of World War II and the Shoah – only this time there is the added fear of nuclear destruction beyond the imagination. And though American Jews are full participants in every aspect of society, anti-Semitism has insinuated itself into the very bloodstream of our community. Savage displays of Jew-hatred from the far left and far right have made us fearful in ways not experienced here since the 1930s and ‘40s.
Which of Passover’s many themes, then, should we be focusing on at our Seders this weekend?
My friend, communal leader and award-winning writer Abigail Pogrebin poses her dilemma in a thoughtful essay in The Atlantic (“Why Is This Year Different From All Other Years?”). She writes that her family Seder has always included a message of empathy for “the other,” underscoring the Torah’s reminder that we, too, were once strangers. But she notes that Rabbi Dov Linzer, president and rabbinic head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, told her he grew up focusing on the Haggadah’s message that enemies of the Jewish people rise up in every generation to destroy us, but God saves us.
Should we feel comforted that God rescues us or distraught that we are so often on the brink of tragedy? Is it with pride or sadness that we refer to ourselves as “the ever-dying people”?
“I’m struggling this year,” Abigail writes, “to reconcile the lessons I’ve taken from the holiday: to help the world, but also to remember how often the world has turned on us.”
Her predicament is one we all share, embodied by the famous adage of the ancient sage, Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Fortunately, Judaism is not an either-or religion. It espouses an ‘and’ and ‘both’ approach, encouraging us to strengthen our ability to live with contradiction. In that light, matzah on Passover is “the bread of affliction” and celebrated for its association with liberation.
We will hold the door open for Elijah, connecting us through the ages to messianic ideals and calling upon God to “pour thy wrath” on our enemies – all too timely as we pray in the here and now for a safe home for millions of Ukrainians made homeless because of one evil man.
Writing these words from Jerusalem, feeling blessed to be here after two years of the pandemic, I see all around me a Jewish state that is flourishing in so many ways but still defending itself against those who would destroy us.
Judaism doesn’t resolve life’s contradictions. It offers a path to dealing with them through faith and fortitude, reminding us on Passover to hold the door open – for Elijah’s presence in our lives and for keeping the promises we make to ourselves.
Chag sameach, happy Passover.