Elijah’s Message to Us

For our Sages, no biblical figure symbolizes the overarching hope of Torah—that one day we human beings will create on this earth a just, caring and compassionate society—more than the prophet Elijah.

According to Jewish tradition, as we celebrate every week during Havdalah, our brief ceremony to bid goodbye to the Sabbath, we express a hope that has sustained us for 2500 years.

Since the time of the prophet Malachi in the fifth pre-Christian century, we have looked to Elijah as the symbol of the time when the world will be the just, caring and compassionate place that God has wanted us to make it since the dawn of creation.

As great as he was, though, even Elijah could sometimes not hear the voice of God. Like so many Elijah experienced deep despair!

Elijah had faith in God his whole life! But he had completely burned out. His strength, his zeal and his enthusiasm had all vanished. When we find him at Mt. Horeb (I Kings 19:10), he was ready to give up.

We marvel that he had sunk so low! And we ask:

Can this be the same Elijah who had once championed the Eternal One so boldly?

  • Is this the same Elijah who chastised King Ahab for confiscating Naboth’s vineyard?
  • Is this the same Elijah who stared down Queen Jezebel when she pronounced a death sentence upon him?
  • And is this the same Elijah who challenged the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, where he said to the idol worshippers, “You set up an altar to your idol god and set a bull upon it, and I will set a bull on an altar to the One true God. But let neither of us light a fire under the bull. Let us see which God consumes the offering without benefit of fire!

The prophets of Baal went first. They prayed, they sang, and they gashed themselves, as was their custom. But nothing happened. Finally the prophets of Baal gave up!

Then Elijah poured buckets and buckets of water over the bull onto the altar, and the water even overflowed the trench below the altar. Then he cried out:

Anne Adonai Aneni  ענני ה׳ ענני

“Answer me, O Lord, Answer me!” And poof! The entire offering, the altar and even the trench below went up in smoke. And at that spectacle all those gathered on the mountain to witness the challenge cried out the words:

ה׳ הוא האלהים Adonai hu Ha-Elohim

“The Eternal One alone is God!!! (I Kings 18:19-39)”

Yes, that dramatic event was a great moment. But as often the case with big dramatic moments in our lives, its glow soon dimmed!

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel still sought to kill Elijah, and he was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. To try to regain his strength he journeyed forty days and forty nights to the site where God revealed Torah to our people, to Mount Sinai.

But there Elijah sunk even deeper into despair. He wanted another dramatic assurance of God’s support for him, but this time it did not come.

He listened and heard a fierce howling wind, and then there was an earthquake and then a raging fire. But God was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. Elijah had to listen very closely and then at last God’s voice came to him in

קול דממה דקה    Kol d’mama daka

A still small voice.” (I Kings 19:8-12)

Elijah’s experience speaks directly to each of us. We yearn to hear God’s voice just as the prophet did. But we shall listen in vain if we always expect to hear it in claps of loud thunder, crackling lightning or in gale force winds!

The first word of Judaism’s most important prayer is

שמע  Shema


Why, Our Sages ask, did God give us two ears but only one mouth? So that we should listen twice as much as we speak.

The voice will not inspire most of us to cure cancer or end war in the world although we pray for the success of those who try. But do we hear that voice when it urges us to do simple things like stop to assist a person who needs help?

Most of us do not.

I was not with her the day Vickie was walking alone on Kufurstendam in Berlin. She turned her ankle on an uneven stone and screamed as she fell to the ground.  Several people walked by, but only one stopped to help her up.

These are two examples from my life when I am glad that I listened to the voice speaking to me:

One summer night when I was twelve I could not sleep. I looked out the window and saw a magnificent full moon seeming to move across the sky. At times, the moon shone brightly. At times it appeared to hide—partially or completely—behind clouds. But each time the clouds hid it, the moon re-emerged to shine brightly once again.

And it was as if God spoke very softly to me and said:

”Such is life, Stephen. There will be moments of bright joy and moments of dark sadness. But watch the moon. It keeps going, and because it does, it eventually moves from darkness to light once again! So keep going! Do not give up, and do your best no matter what obstacles life puts in your path!”

No teacher ever taught me a more valuable lesson!

When I was fifteen, I heard the voice again.

It was a snowy winter night, and I was walking to our synagogue to participate in our annual service for the Festival of Chanukah. I had stepped into a gift shop to buy a present for my girlfriend when a little girl of about ten walked into the store. She was dressed very poorly and her tattered cloak was not sufficient to keep her warm in the winter chill.

“I want to buy a Christmas present for my mother,” she said to the shopkeeper, “but I don’t have very much money.”

The storekeeper showed her a few inexpensive items, and when she saw a nice bracelet, her eyes lit up! But they immediately dimmed when she counted her money and realized that she did not have enough to buy it.

To this day, I believe, the still small voice guided me into that store, so that I could make up the difference between the amount of money that she had and the amount that she needed to buy her mother that present.

Because Elijah finally heard the still small voice, he found the courage to continue his mission. Because Elijah listened to the still small voice Jews to this day—2500 years later—look to him as the symbol of the glorious era that will bring peace and harmony to the entire world.

People are unlikely to remember us in 2500 years as we do Elijah, but if we listen for and heed the still small voice, we can–in small but very real ways—-make a better world.

Out tradition (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 22a and other places) teaches that to help a single person is to save the entire world!

If we listen, all of us can hear the “still small voice” and use our talents to perform small acts that make a better world, and that, I believe, is what God wants each of us to do.




One More Look at Elijah Before Passover


Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?

Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE.  But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.

It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One.  He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world.  With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us.  One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!

By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:

  1. The end of the oppression of the Jews
  2. A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
  3. The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
  4. The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity

People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah.  The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.

As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work.  Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago.  Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.

When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.”  Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.

Elijah’s Role on Yom Kippur

It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar— with the triumphant cry from the  passage (First Kings, Chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel:  “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim!  The Eternal One  alone  is God!”  We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the only time  we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.

Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial.   King Ahab and even more so, Queen Jezebel (whose name is synonymous with wickedness) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice.  They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true God.  

So, Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al on Mt Carmel.  He says we will each prepare our offering, and the god who consumes the offering without having kindled a fire is the true deity.  The prophets of Ba’al go first, and though they cry out and gash themselves, nothing happens. Elijah then pours water over his offering, so much water that it fills the trench around the makeshift altar and cries, “Answer me O Eternal One, Answer me!”

POOF!  The offering, the altar beneath it and even the trench filled with water go up in smoke.

Who is God? Elijah essentially asks?  Is it your idol that you worship by gashing yourselves and with other abominations that make a mockery of human dignity? Is it Ba’al who you hope will greedily eat your offering?  Or is it the one true God who wants us to create a world of justice, kindness, caring and compassion?

And then, in a most dramatic fashion, God vanquishes Ba’al on Mt Carmel and all must acknowledge God’s sovereignty.  It is a replay in miniature of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt where God defeats Pharaoh, the pagan god in human form.

So what should Jews take away from what is arguably the holiest moment of the year?  What should we all learn from this passage that can help us to live more meaningfully?

Even though many in power debase the ideals and values that the Almighty wants us to uphold — and even though God does not assert the reality of the Divine presence as dramatically to us as we see on Mt. Carmel (or in the parting of the sea) — it is our job to hold fast to God’s desires for us.  True worship is not found in mouthing empty words, but in making our faith the driving force in our lives.  We glorify God and demonstrate our faith when we use our talents — whatever they may be — to help repair this broken world.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching, my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder in hopes that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories than there are stories about Moses, and even Solomon. This is due in part to the prophet Malachi, who  transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian C. figure to the one who would  announce the coming of the Messiah and the 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.

Ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and lows 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 funk 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 worse, the wicked Jezebel has put a price on his head.

God tries to encourage Elijah, and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses,  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, alone.

As profound and wonderful as it was, not even God’s voice could lift the cloud of despair from Elijah. Thus, the time has come for him  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 desire to do so—into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah, we must all some day let go of 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.