With Passover approaching my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder to express the hope that we can make the world better than it is.
Elijah is the most storied character in all of the Hebrew Bible. If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories then there are stories about Moses (and more than the character who has the second largest number of Midrashic vignettes, Solomon). This phenomenon is due in large measure to the work of the prophet Malachi who at the end of his book transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian c. figure of might and courage to the one who in Jewish longing would return one day to announce the coming of the Messiah and with him bring an end of war and bloodshed. With the coming of the Messiah an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth. Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents. For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.
But the ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and low that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty yet – like many who selflessly give of themselves – he has fallen into a deep depression of self-doubt. Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught and will have no lasting effect. And worse, the wicked Jezebel still has a price on his head.
God tries to encourage him and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses — whose career Elijah’s parallels in many ways – Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. There he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives. Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real! God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind. Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire. But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.
Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts. It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others. But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours.
As profound and wonderful as it was, though, not even God’s voice could completely lift the cloud of despair from Elijah, and God knows the time has come for him – as it came for – to relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative. The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.
This should not be perceived as punishment. At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel — despite his eager desire to do so – into the Promised Land. Like Moses and Elijah we must all some day relinquish our hold on the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.
Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty like Moses and Elijah can find valuable instruction here. Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever. That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have. And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.