By Shlomo Riskin
‘Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he [Elijah] will turn [back to God] the hearts of the parents through their children and the hearts of the children through their parents’ (Malachi 3:23-24).
The Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Sabbath), a phrase deriving from the last verse of the prophetic portion read on that day which declares that God will send Elijah the Prophet on the “great day” of the Lord right before the coming of the redemption.
Let us attempt to link Elijah to our Passover seder in a way more profound than merely opening the door for him and offering him a sip of wine.
Our analysis begins with another seder anomaly, the fact that we begin our night of freedom with the distribution of an hors d’oeuvre of karpas (Greek for vegetation or vegetable, often parsley, dipped in a condiment).
The usual explanation for this is that vegetation emerges in the springtime; Passover is biblically called the “Spring Festival,” and so we dip a vegetable in salt water, reminiscent of spring renewal emerging from the tears of Egyptian enslavement. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, in his late 19th-century Haggada, suggests another interpretation. The Hebrew word “karpas” appears in the opening verses of the Book of Esther, in the description of the “hangings” that were found in the gardens of King Ahasuerus’s palace, where the great feast for all his kingdom was hosted; karpas white cotton joined with turquoise wool. Rashi connects the term “karpas” in the sense of material with the ketonet passim, the striped tunic that Jacob gave to his beloved son, Joseph.
The Jerusalem Talmud additionally suggests that we dip the karpas in haroset (a mixture of wine, nuts and dates), adding that haroset is reminiscent of the blood of the babies murdered in Egypt. In our case, the karpas would become symbolic of Joseph’s tunic, which the brothers dipped into goat’s blood and brought to their father as a sign that his son had been torn apart by wild beasts when in fact they had sold him into Egyptian slavery.
Why begin the seder this way? The Talmud criticizes Jacob for favoring Joseph over the other brothers and giving him the striped tunic. This gift, a piece of material with little monetary value, engendered vicious jealousy resulting in the sale of Joseph and the eventual enslavement of the Israelites for 210 years.
The point of the seder is the retelling (“haggada”) of the seminal experience of servitude and freedom from generation to generation. Through this, all parents become teachers. They must inspire their children to continue the Jewish narrative of identification with the underdog and the outcast. They must imbue in their offspring insistence upon freedom for every individual created in God’s image and faith in the ultimate triumph of a world dedicated to peace and security for all.
This places an awesome responsibility on the shoulders of every parent: to convey the ethical monotheism, rooted in our ritual celebrations and teachings, to their children and eventually to all of humanity. Hence, parents must be warned at the outset not to repeat the tragic mistake of Jacob, not to create divisions and jealousies among their children. Instead, we must unite the generations in the common goal of continuing our Jewish narrative.
What has this to do with Elijah the Prophet, who is slated to be the herald of the Messiah, the announcer of the “good tidings of salvation and comfort”? Our redemption is dependent on our repentance and the most necessary component of redemption is “loving our fellow as we love ourselves” – the great rule of the Torah taught by Rabbi Akiva.
Loving humanity must begin with loving our family; first and foremost our nuclear family. We read in the prophetic portion of this Shabbat that Elijah will bring everyone back to God by uniting parents with their children and children with parents. The biblical source of sibling hatred (the Joseph story), which has plagued Jewish history up to and including the present day, will be repaired by Elijah, who will unite the hearts of the children and the parents together in their commitment to God.
Toward the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah and welcome him to drink from the cup of redemption poured especially for him. But if Elijah can visit every seder throughout the world, surely he can get through even the most forbidding kind of door.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, teaches that we open the door not so much to let Elijah in as to let ourselves out. The seder speaks of four children; But what about the myriad “fifth children” who never came to a seder? We must go out after them and bring them in – perhaps together with Elijah, whom we will need desperately to unite the entire family of Israel around the Seder table.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.