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Following in the footsteps of children

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One seder practice has always held a special mystique for me. It’s the point when Prophet Elijah’s cup is filled and the door is opened to welcome him.

As a very young child, the challenge was to stay awake until that late hour to witness the arrival of the special visitor. As I got older, I hoped to be chosen to go to the front door, candle in hand, and stand sentry until instructed to close and return to the table.

Equally exciting, however, was to remain seated and watch the level of the wine dip imperceptibly (in fact totally imperceptibly), convincing myself I had actually seen Elijah drink some of the liquid.

This year, I will be looking to Elijah to answer a question that has been weighing heavily on my mind: how do I get my community back into shul one year down the line?

It has been a long and hard year. For everyone. For rabbonim, it has been about ministering to our communities with shuls closed by law, or health concerns, for more than half of the past 12 months.

To our distressed congregants, eager to gather in prayer during these difficult times, we patiently explained that G-d listens to our entreaties from anywhere, and that one must daven at home, alone, when it isn’t possible to do so in shul.

It seems our argument was convincing – too persuasive in fact. Hence, though places of worship are now allowed to be open, our attendance is nowhere near pre-April 2020.

We have tried in every way to draw our people back, through public announcements and private pleas, but we still have a long way to go. We can preach again and again about the value of communal prayer over individual prayer. We can repeat that our shuls have set up strict health guidelines – beyond what the law mandates. But, people have learnt to enjoy praying at home.

So, I will turn to Elijah the prophet, always referred to in the Talmud as the one who will resolve an issue when an impasse is reached and no halachic conclusion is possible.

This Shabbat in shul, on the eve of Passover, we read in the Haftorah the very final of all prophecies. It’s drawn from the last of all Books of the Prophets, Malachi, and refers to Yom Hagadol (the big day) of the final messianic redemption, one reason why this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol.

And what are the last words of the last prophecy of all? “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, ahead of the big day. He will turn the hearts of parents by means of their children and the hearts of children by means of their parents.”

Before the dawning of the messianic era, the generation gap will have to close and Elijah’s job will be just that, to ensure that the hearts of children and parents are at one. This is why this prophet is invited as guest of honour on the night of Pesach, so that he can watch first-hand the cross-generational experience of the handing over of tradition.

This is the night when children, parents, and grandparents interact, the former asking the questions and the latter responding, passing over the torch of the fundamentals of our faith. It’s also why a special seat is provided for Elijah at circumcision ceremonies, so that he can be there as a new generation is inducted into the faith of the fathers.

I have a suspicion that this is the answer Prophet Elijah will give to my burning question. He will tell me that we must invest in our children, and draw them to shul with innovative and exciting activities.

“Involve the youth in the services, call them up to the Torah, let them open the Ark, chant Haftorahs, sing Anim Zmirot,” he will say. This will bring their parents and grandparents to listen to them quicker than any beautifully crafted, compelling sermon, a chazzan with an amazing voice, or a melodious choir.

Kinderlach, come to shul this Pesach! Grab your parents by the hand, stop off on the way to collect your grandparents. Elijah is watching! We want him now.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi of the Oxford Synagogue Centre, and the chairman of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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