Following in the footsteps of children
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.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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