I may have seen Elijah the prophet this past week at the Cove and he lives in Springdale.
Before I share the rest of the story, here is a little background.
Who was the prophet Elijah and why do we welcome him at every circumcision and Passover Seder?
He lived a few thousand years ago in Israel during a time when many of the Jewish people succumbed to the temptations of idolatry. He was tasked by G-d with awakening the Jewish soul. Yet, he argues with G-d and wonders in what merit the Jewish people should be given a second chance. He is seen as a zealot. Yet, ultimately, he is persuaded by G-d to have mercy on his people and stir repentance among them.
But G-d wants Elijah to repent for his lack of faith in the Jewish people. He appoints Elijah to appear periodically throughout history to shepherd the Jewish people. Elijah appears at circumcisions and Seders to highlight our enduing relationship with G-d.
You may have heard stories about an Elijah appearance. I want to share with you mine. He gave me a push just when I needed it most.
As many of you know, for the past numbers of years, we conduct a sunrise service at the Cove. Every year, I wonder whether it is worth doing. The crowds are small and in particular I feel this way at 5 AM.
This past Sunday, the davening was beautiful and uplifting as always. One of our members remarked at the end how much he looks forward to the experience every year. What happened next was hard to believe. As we arrived at the parking lot to get into our cars, a man greeted us in his fifties in shorts and shirt. He exclaimed to us “My mishpacha, Shanah Tovah!” He had no idea I was a rabbi.
I asked him if he had a place to go for Rosh Hashanah and he responded, “I knew you were going to ask me that. I do not have a place but I have little money for membership. Are you going to treat me like Elijah and open the door for me?” I responded, “Of course, you are welcome.”
He then reminisced how the last time he felt a Jewish connection was in the 80’s when he was welcomed into a Mitzvah tank in NYC and laid tefillin. He shared, “I will never forget that the fellows told me I looked like a shtarka Yid”
He then said to me words, which I will never forget, and in my eyes he was an Elijah. “Every year I always look for you guys on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah and wonder whether you will need me for a minyan. This year, I felt a bit embarrassed since I was walking around in short but as you were leaving, I thought I would approach you and introduce myself with the words mishpacha, family.
I could not believe it. Here was a man who was looking for me and believing in me when I needed it most. He invoked the prophet Elijah to alert me and us that Elijah may be in our midst and all we have to do is open up the door.
Throughout history, Elijah appears in the most mysterious of places.
The story is told of a student of the Baal Shem Tov who felt after much preparation that he was deserving of a vision of the prophet Elijah. His master instructed him to visit a certain town and ask to be hosted at the home of a specific family. “Make sure to bring them food”, the Baal Shem Tov added. The student eagerly packed a wagon full of food and set off. Upon arriving, he was directed to an old dilapidated house, home of a poor widow with many young children. The student spent Shabbat with them and was only too happy to share his mountains of food. But Elijah never showed up.
The Baal Shem Tov instructed the student to try again the next week. As he approached the door, he heard a child’s plaintive voice” But what will we eat on Shabbat?” A reassuring voice replied, “Don’t worry. Just like Elijah came last week, he will come this week again!”
I share these stories at the outset of the New Year, on Rosh Hashanah, because it encapsulates two primary themes of the holiday. The first is belief in us and the second is belief in the capacity of others.
What does it mean to be an Elijah? The man sets out to find Elijah in some remote location only to realize that Elijah lies within. It is in that moment of recognition when he realizes that he is the one the family is waiting for and that he is the agent of kindness. He knows that his life embodies a mission beyond himself.
I would venture to say, we have all experienced these moments. It is joy we feel deep down when we sense our actions are fully aligned with a higher purpose. It is a moment when our hearts are full. It could be when a child is born or we stand under a chupah. All seems right. As described by a grandmother whose daughter gave birth to a girl – “as I sat silently with my daughter and her daughter, I sensed the presence of my mother and grandmother as well”. We feel entwined with the cords of generational continuity. Grandchildren are the dividends of investment. When we can say we have passed the baton to the next generation of Jews, it is an Elijah moment.
One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon for me occurred this past summer while in Denver. I was privileged to name a baby for a couple whose wedding I presided over a few years ago. The moment was bittersweet as the baby was named after her great grandfather, yet when sharing blessings among the family members following the service, when asked for her thoughts, the only words the great grandmother could share were “my heart is full” for she knew that although her husband was not physically present, the birth of a Jewish baby embodied her and her husband’s highest aspirations.
Being an Elijah means living life every day with an awareness of our capacity to be G-d’s agents on earth. It is one thing to sense this mission at life cycle events and another to be conscious of our role all the time.
How often do we look back on the passage of time and wonder where did the days go? We arrive in synagogue as we greet the New Year filled with regrets about what we could have done and should have done. When we are confronted with the awesomeness of the day, we pause to reflect on whether we seized our Elijah moment.
Yet, G-d calls on us today to examine our mission awareness because he cares about us and believes in us. He knows that each of us can be an Elijah, the agent for fixing the world and elevating it. The more we lead our lives in sync with our mission, the more satisfying our lives will be. When we embrace our particular calling, we will live inspired!
Mark Twain expressed this idea succinctly when he wrote – The two most important days of our lives are the day we are born and the day we understand why.
On a personal level, I grew up with this awareness. The decor of my bedroom was not a picture of a superhero or sports star but a saying from Ethics of our Fathers – “If not now, when?” In subtle ways, my parents tried to instill within me the value of every moment and a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, we do not always live with this sense of urgency and possibility. For me, when my mother died suddenly at the young age of 44, and until this day, I live with a stronger sense of the fragility of life but even more with an innate passion to infuse every moment with infinite holiness. This awareness is intrinsic to life as a Jew.
It is stated in the work – In my Heart I will Build a Sanctuary, “Every moment in which we do not live a sense of heightened awareness of the Divine within is not living.”
Be an Elijah. Never underestimate the potential of any moment to be transformed through our actions into an eternal one.
I would like to share two brief stories to illustrate this idea. One occurred to me at coffee shop a block from Grand Central and the second this summer to a friend in a parking lot in West Hartford.
One of the most challenging requests I receive as a Rabbi occurs when a parent or grandparent expresses concern about an inter-faith relationship.
This past spring, I received such a call from a family member with the caveat – please call her just to meet and maybe find the opportunity to speak to her about her personal situation. Little did I know I was serving as an Elijah. We had tried to meet a few times but to no avail. One day when I was in the city, I figured I would give it another shot and asked if she could meet for coffee for 30 minutes before heading back to Stamford. The get together went well and I literally felt as if I was being guided in my conversation. We covered a lot of ground including her dating situation and I left without knowing what would be. A few days later, I received the following email –
Hi Rabbi Cohen,
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to sit and meet with me and for all of your kind words. Meeting with you really inspired me to reconnect with my Judaism, and I have given great thought to what we discussed and more. I feel that you reached out to me just when I needed it the most, and as my mother suggested, perhaps my grandfather sent you to me. I thought a lot about what we discussed getting more involved in my religion, as well as staying true to my values. A few days after we met, I ended my romantic relationship and began reconnecting with many of my family members, as well as some friends whom I had not spoken to in a while.
It was an Elijah moment. Outside of Grand Central, in 30 minutes, a life transformed.
The second Elijah moment occurred for me this past summer. A friend discovered her Elijah moment in a parking lot. I led a discussion on the topic of living inspired. I began with a request – share a peak moment when you felt connected to G-d. One woman shared the following. “A few weeks ago, I was getting out of my car at the Big Y parking lot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly man with orthopedic shoes slowly exiting his car and noticed that one of his shoes was untied. I am not sure what possessed me but I went over to him and asked if I could help him tie his shoes as I knew it would be hard for him to bend down”. With tears in her eyes, she shared that in that instant she felt closer to G-d than almost ever before in her life. Almost the entire group welled up in tears.
She wondered why she became so emotional. I explained that in those few seconds when she intuitively sensed her ability to become a messenger for Hashem her soul was on fire. It was her Elijah moment.
Life is intended to be lived this way.
The Slonimer Rebbe, a Chasidic master, shares a stirring idea based on the teaching of the holy mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria. At the end of our lives, how will we be judged by G-d? Rabbi Luria explains that the most haunting question will be: Did we realize our mission in this world? It is a question that speaks to the heart of our personal potential to serve as an angel on earth.
Most importantly, the mystics suggest that not only do we have a mission in life but one on a daily basis – it changes from one day to the next. Just as God renews creation every day, he also renews our responsibility to the world. Every day, we encounter new people; new circumstances, new opportunities and we are called upon with the God given talents we possess to rise to the occasion – each day. There is no room for complacency. This is the bar. It is very high. What did each one of us do today to uplift another soul? What can we do today to be an Elijah?
It could be a coffee shop in Manhattan or it could be a supermarket parking lot. It could be as simple as a call to offer support to a coworker, friend or family. Each one of us can be an Elijah.
The second message of the Baal Shem Tov story is seeing the Elijah in others. As we are called upon to believe in our own Elijah potential, we are called upon to see the Elijah potential in others.
We are mandated to emulate G-d. If the Almighty is willing to find our redemptive qualities every Yom Kippur, we in turn must see others in a favorable light. According to the Talmud, our future depends on it. As the Sages teach – when we judge people favorably he will see us the same way.
Let’s stop for a moment and think.
What if we all agreed to treat everyone we meet going forward as if they were an Elijah?
We all recognize it is a challenge for us. I could speak today about the struggles within the Jewish people. Our world is filled with kindness but we have much to improve. The tensions in Israel among the religious and non religious are palpable and in our country the political vitriol seems always too high.
The Jewish ideal is derived from Aaron, the brother of Moses. He is known as a lover of peace and every human being. The Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers states: Be a student of Aaron – Love Peace and Pursue Peace – Love all Creations and Bring them Close to Torah. The commentators note the word – Creations…it does not say love of every Jew, Love every righteous person but love every Briah – creation of G-d. Everyone is possesses a spark of the Divine. Whatever a person’s background, race or creed – Everyone is a potential Elijah.
Elijah is the child in the classroom. Elijah is the homeless fellow on the off ramp with the sign asking for money. He is the maintenance person at your child’s school. The bus driver. The banker. The receptionist at the doctor’s office.
He is anyone. And he is everyone.
What would the world look like if we all treated each other with the kindness we’d offer Elijah?
It would be the start of the Messianic Age.
There was a family in Jerusalem with a child who was severely retarded. The parents came to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to discuss the institutionalization of their son: Where should they put him, how should they tell him, and so forth. The son did not want to go. Rav Shlomo Zalman asked the parents: Did you discuss this with your son? They said, “We cannot discuss it with him, he is mentally diminished.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman insisted. You cannot just drop him off in an institution. You have to discuss it with him first. Rav Shlomo Zalman told the parents, “I want to see the boy.” They brought their son to see Rav Shlomo Zalman. The great Rabbi asked the boy, “What’s your name.” The boy told him his name. Rav Shlomo Zalman then told the boy, “My name is Shlomo Zalman. I am the Gadol Hador [greatest Torah Sage of the generation]. You are going to go now to a special school. But there is no one in the school to supervise that everything is Kosher and everything is being done properly. I am making you my personal representative to see to it that everything in that school is Kosher and everything is done properly. And I am giving you Semicha and now you are a Rabbi. I want you to tell everyone there that Rav Sholomo Zalman Auerbach, the Gadol Hador, made me his personal emissary to see that everything is right.”
They put the boy in the institution. A few weeks later, the parents wanted to take the boy home for Shabbos. The boy said “I cannot leave. Rav Shlomo Zalman told me that I am responsible. I am the Mashgiach here. I have to take care of things.” The boy did not want to come home for Shabbos.
What did Rav Shlomo Zalman do? He gave this boy a mission. When the boy received the mission, he said, “This is what I have to live up to.” He discovered the Elijah in the boy and the boy in turn rose to the occasion.
The spirit of Elijah does exist within our world. Throughout history, many have claimed to meet him. Each story reveals an everyday kindness. Perhaps we have encountered Elijah. Maybe it was Elijah who found your wallet and returned it with all of the contents? Could it have been Elijah that slowed down and waved you on ahead of him in traffic? Maybe it was Elijah at the Cove.
I would like to conclude with a story illustrating a vision and world in which we see the Elijah in others.
Once the abbot of a failing monastery went to the local rabbi for advice. He told him there were only five monks left in his order and that they didn’t know how to save their beloved institution. “I am very sorry,” the rabbi responded. “But, I have no advice for you and your fellow monks. The only thing I know is that one of you is the prophet Elijah.”
Back at the monastery, the monks pondered the rabbi’s cryptic advice. “Was he saying that one of us is actually Elijah? Who could it be? He must have meant Father Abbot; he has been our leader for so long. Or maybe he meant Brother Thomas. Brother Thomas is certainly a holy man. The rabbi could not have meant Brother Elrad. He’s just a crotchety old guy. And surely it is not Brother Philip. He’s so passive; I barely notice him. But then again, maybe he is Elijah!”
And as the monks considered these possibilities, they began to treat each other with extraordinary respect; on the off chance that one of them might actually be Elijah. Slowly, imperceptibly, this aura of extraordinary respect permeated the atmosphere of the monastery and beyond. Now when visitors wandered through the woods, they were drawn to the monastery. They began to bring their friends to show them this special, spiritual place. Gradually, the monastery once again became a center of holiness and light, illuminating the entire town.
Kindness is holiness…the kind of holiness that illuminates our world. Elijah embodies the latent potential in all of us for impact and spiritual greatness.
Ask yourself today, what you can do to awaken the Elijah within you? What difference can you make this year in someone else’s life – our shul, our families, our community, for the people of Israel?
Ask yourself today, how you could change the world by seeing everyone and treating them as Elijah the prophet? Turn to your neighbor and consider how differently you would see them if you knew they were Elijah and could save the world.
Elijah is waiting for us…all we have to do is open the door.
Before I left the fellow at the Cove, I asked him if he would like to hear the shofar. He responded yes and I closed my eyes and blew from within the depths of my soul.
I could not help but envision the fulfillment of the verse in the prophets – a great day will arrive when a shofar will be blown and Elijah will arrive and welcome the Messiah.
Perhaps, if we realize our Elijah Moment every day and in every moment…we too will illuminate our worlds and merit the return of the original Elijah the prophet who will herald the coming of the Messiah and world energized with blessing, peace and spirit speedily in our days.