Assisting Elijah: Some thoughts on Passover, Responsibility, and Human Action

Posted: April 7, 2012 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist, My moral code, On Compassion
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This morning I heard about a really beautiful new spin on a very old Passover tradition and I want to share it. I also want to talk about why it’s something that I find immensely profound. I need to make sure that credit is given where due so, to be very clear, this is not my idea. It came from my Rabbi, Michael Cahana, at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon. Rabbi Cahana and his family get’s 100% of the credit. When it comes to the practice, I am but the messenger. When it comes to my comments on its profundity and the rationale for my love of the idea, these words are mine and represent no opinion save for my own.

First, you need to understand that last night was the first night of Passover and that, throughout the world, Jews held an annual ceremonial dinner called a “Seder”. Basically, this is a ritual that re-tells the story of Moses’s confrontation with the Pharaoh of Egypt over freeing (or not) the Jewish people from slavery; and, or course, the Exodus itself. I won’t describe the whole event because most of you probably already know about it and because the ritual itself is not my topic. What is important is this:

Toward the end of a Passover Seder, a portion of the ritual consists of opening the door to your home and placing a glass of wine there, for the prophet Elijah.  This is (to my understanding) for 2 reasons. First, tradition says that Elijah visits the home of every Jew on Passover and who better to share your joy with than the great prophet Eliahu ha’navi. Second, it is Elijah who will usher in the messianic age. The idea is that we treat Elijah as part of  the family in the hope that he’ll stick around and the messianic age will be upon us. In the meantime, we are just waiting for the big day!

Interestingly, while this ritual of giving wine to Elijah is one of hope, is also one of waiting. It is this latter aspect where Rabbi Cahana’s new “spin” is so inspiring. You see, instead of filling a wineglass from a bottle and waiting around for better days, he started with an empty glass. Before setting a glass out for Elijah, the Cahana’s had each attendee at the Seder pour some of their own wine into the glass and then say what they would do this year to help improve the world. I find this utterly profound because it makes a statement that I agree with 1000%. It says “don’t sit around waiting for a better life, a better society, a cleaner planet, a perfectly loving species of human; take responsibility for the necessary change; ACT to fix the world yourself!

If you have been reading my posts, it should not surprise you that I wrestle with God on a regular basis. I don’t believe in a God to whom you make personal requests and who grants your wishes like a fairy godmother or a genie. I don’t believe that everything is just fine no matter how bad things get because it’s “God’s plan”. I don’t believe that when, for example, a child dies she’s “in a better place”.  I don’t believe in sitting around and waiting for the Messiah to come in “God’s time” while the world remains in turmoil. Most importantly, I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of a “higher power” to bring about a world of love, compassion, acceptance, health, and peace. This does not mean that I don’t believe in a “higher power”; I just don’t think we are well served by dumping responsibility for all of our problems on him/her/it. I don’t believe that “good things come to those who wait”. To me, the only thing that can improve human well-being is human action. My mother told me, time and again, that “God helps those who help themselves”. I live by that creed. If you want things to improve, improve things! Taking responsibility and acting rationally are the prime movers of betterment.

In the context of what I just said, you should easily see how Rabbi Cahana’s new take on the ritual of sharing wine with Elijah has such synchronicity with my way of thinking. Instead of leaving a glass of wine out for Elijah and then waiting, we make a committed offer to assist Elijah. In committing to do our personal part we are making a conscious acknowledgement that we must be responsible and that we must act to improve the world. Waiting doesn’t seem to have worked. It is time to rededicate ourselves, this Passover, to a commitment to personal responsibility, individual action, and a personal ethic of working to improve out societies and our cute little blue planet.

Hag Pesach Someach!

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