festivals · story

Set a place for Elijah

If you receive a knock on your door over this Pesach season from a beggar, please be warned. It could be Elijah.

You have been setting a place at the table for him every year, leaving him an extra glass of wine. You have been waiting for him. Did you never imagine what he would look like?

Sure, in the children’s stories, he is like a jolly Jewish Santa carrying presents. But you are all old enough and learned enough to know how Elijah is really depicted in our tradition.

When you think of Elijah, you need to imagine somebody who absolutely stinks. You need to picture wild matted hair and cackling laughter and a leather hip flask filled with hooch. 

The prophet is a drinker, and who can blame him?

No crueller punishment has ever been doled out than that given to Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah was cursed with unending life.

His sentence came in the time of Queen Jezebel but he was already much older than that. Nobody knew how old, or where he was from.

Back then, the people called him the Tishbite: the immigrant. The name stuck so hard that later generations imagined he must have come from a place called Tishab. 

He made enemies in life. Prophets always do. They have God on their side, but the powerful have the weapons, and, for now, the truth of swords is stronger than Scripture. 

At first, Elijah revelled in his mission. He was a notorious outcast. He went out in the streets making fun of the false gods. He wound people up in the markets. He poured scorn on every priest. 

And, at first, his adversaries found him entertaining too. He was like a court jester, telling the monarchs what they didn’t want to hear, as onlookers cheered him on.

But the joke grew thin. And the ruling powers had enough.

“I swear by all my gods, I will kill you,” said Queen Jezebel, and Elijah fled into the mountain caves. 

“The trouble is,” Elijah wailed, “people don’t know what’s good for them. Nobody is faithful any more. The real ones have vanished from humanity. Everyone lies. They have twisted lips and two faces. Why can’t you just cut out their tongues?”

God gave him food and water and rest through the kindness of ravens. 

“Please, Almighty,” prayed the prophet. “Send me a sign.”

The wind rattled mercilessly through the mountains, shattering rocks and splitting cliffs.

“Please, God,” said Elijah. “Just a small sign of Your provenance.”

In the valley below, the earth rumbled and quaked apart.

“Are you there, God?” he asked.

Over the tops of the hills, Elijah saw black smoke puffing out of white flames as a raving fire blistered through the thickets. 

That’s when Elijah made his fatal error. He begged God to let him die.

“I’m not looking for miracles, O Merciful One. I’m all out of hope. I have had enough. Please take my life.”

Then there was silence. 

No more infernos or hurricanes or earthquakes. 

The pressure dipped. The ravens stopped chirping. 

Not even an echo in the still canyon. 

He heard a whisper in the cave. 

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The Tishbite stood up in the dark silence. He mustered his courage. He announced: “I am a zealous warrior for the Almighty God. And I am the only one left.”

“A zealous warrior who wishes he were dead?”

Elijah got ready to speak, but the whisper interrupted him.

“A man of the people who despises the people? A faithful prophet who does not see miracles? A truth teller who lies in the face of God?”

Elijah was still and small.

“Faithless, are they?” 

God’s words reverberated in the cave. 

“In that case,” said the Creator. “You will need to watch over them. They will never perform our rituals without you there. So you will attend every circumcision and attend every seder until the end of time. Then you will see how faithless My people are.”

A hurricane of flames burst from the clouds and dragged Elijah, screaming, into the sky.

“Your mission is ongoing,” the Eternal One instructed him. “You will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. You will be my herald of a greater age.”

“When people are ready to listen to you, when they believe you and see you,” said God, “then I will send the Messiah.”

So Elijah trudged on. He stood in the gateways of every city, proclaiming visions of a coming world. “There will be no hunger or war; neither envy nor competition. Goodness will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.”

But nobody listened. 

He had no more cheerleaders, and no more adversaries. He was just another vagrant with a vivid imagination. 

Do you know what happens to a body when it is condemned to live? It trundles on with all the distress of ageing but without any hope of repose. Over centuries, the bones break, the eyes dim, the flesh rots, the organs become riddled with disease. In each era new viruses and plagues are created and you contract them all. It takes a long time, but you get sick and your lungs fill up and feet swell and your joints fuse and your muscles contract and your pores reek and your hands tremble.

It is like being unbelievably tired but never, ever allowed to sleep. 

It took a while before Elijah really allowed time to lay waste to his body. Before he let his hair become matted and knotted. Before he stopped washing and his skin turned to oily fungal patches.

Talmud teaches that, when the Romans ruled the world, he used to sit at the gates of their capital city. He would sit with the other beggars, tending to his wounds. He would unwrap each bandage and then tie it again, gingerly holding his body together as it broke.

A great rabbi came to visit him and recognised him from a mystic’s description. 

“My master, my teacher, peace be upon you,” the young rabbi beamed as he alighted on the prophet.

Elijah was filled with joy. For a brief moment Elijah felt he was seen. 

“When will the Messiah be coming?” The rabbi asked. 

“Today!” Elijah laughed. “Today! Today! Today!”

The rabbi went back to his homeland with the prophet’s words in his ears. 

“Today,” said Elijah, as he sat back down to tend his wounds. “Today. If you are able to see me and you are willing to hear my words, it really could be today.”

“I don’t think that was really Elijah,” the rabbi said to his friends on his return.

So the Messiah didn’t come then, and the Messiah hasn’t come yet. 

Some snooty Jews are expecting him to turn up with beaming smiles and a suit and tie. Or they imagine he will be a wispy spirit. Or they think the Heavens will open and they will see God themselves. 

They open the door to him. But, even with the place set and the doors wide open, they don’t notice that the old prophet is already there, dressed in his rags and nursing his whiskey. He has always been there.

Only when we are able to realise that intoxicated crazy people might be Elijah will we really be able to see the prophet.

And when we all recognise that every outcast and despised person may be the harbinger of the greater age, we will not need to wait any longer. The Messianic age will have already arrived. 

So, set a place for Elijah this Pesach. Fill a glass of wine for his health. Open your door to welcome him.

Just be sure you know who you’re looking for.

Shabbat shalom.