Elijah's Message*

Malachi 4

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:

6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers...

Although the commentators have proposed many reasons to explain why the Sabbath preceding Passover is designated "i>Shabbat Ha-Gadol"--literally: the Sabbath of "the great"--the most straightforward interpretation is that it derives its name from the closing words of the haftarah reading from Malachi, which concludes:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

It remains less than obvious why our sages chose this particular reading for the haftarah preceding Passover.

The simplest answer would seem derive from the established premise that the liberation from Egypt is regarded as the prototype for the future liberation; and the concluding words of the haftarah describe the announcement of that redemption, in a way that is analogous to our awareness on this occasion that Passover is just around the corner.

Frankly, I do not find this answer to be completely satisfactory.For me it only serves to introduce a much more fundamental mystery: Of all the great prophets who inhabit the pages of the Bible, why was Elijah chosen as the herald of the Messianic era?

If we are looking for a prophet whose career and personality parallel those of Moses, then Elijah seems to bear the least similarity either to Moses or to the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

By any of these standards, Elijah comes across as a singularly inappropriate prophet to represent the themes of freedom and redemption.

On further reflection, however, I suspect the above difficulty is an erroneous one, and that it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the true significance of the liberation from Egypt as understood by the Torah.

In order to achieve a better understanding of what the Torah wanted us to learn from the Passover story, it is useful to take a look at the places wherecommandments in the Torah are justified by the clause "because you were slaves in the Land of Egypt" or similar expressions.

Almost all of the examples involve the extending of compassion to the most vulnerable classes of society. Our experience as an oppressed minority in Egypt, should teach us, above all other things, not to mistreat the strangers and dispossessed persons who dwell among us. Because we were exploited in Egypt, we must conduct our own business dealings with complete honesty and integrity.

We must refrain from cheating the strangers; you must love them as ourselves.

This same principal is extended to justify a broad range of charitable gifts that must be distributed to the needy.

The memory of our Egyptian experience provides the basis for the prohibition of charging interest, or of taking advantage of other people's fragile economic plights. It prohibits us from enslaving other Jews, and mandates severe limitations to the forms of employer-employee relations that may be entered into. Servants may not be indentured permanently, and the employer must provide for them generously at the conclusion of their terms of employment.

According to the version of the Decalogue that is given in Deuteronomy, the observance of the Sabbath itself is justified as a measure against permanent enslavement:

that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt...

For the same reason, you are expected to include your servants, Levites, strangers, orphans and widows in the festivities of your holy days.

Note carefully that none of these examples speak of the obligation to fight political tyranny. This is not to imply that resistance to oppression is unimportant, or discouraged. Several of the biblical prophets stood up before unjust monarchs in order to challenge the iniquitous social order.

Nevertheless, the Torah is sending us an unmistakable message that the lessons of the Exodus do not exhaust themselves in political liberation, or in the overthrow of repressive regimes. History is filled with examples of rulers who were toppled only to be replaced by "liberation movements" that were no less cruel.

It is a grave error to imagine that real freedom can be achieved purely through political means. It requires, first and foremost, a change of heart, an instilling in our souls of compassion and respect for human dignity. Without these values, the most fervent of revolutions is doomed to failure.

And these are precisely the values that were embodied in Elijah the prophet. In the midst of his life-and-death confrontations with the political and religious leaders of his day, it is Elijah who finds the time to offer care and sustenance for the individual needs of a poor widow and her family.

And this is the special role that Malachi assigned to Elijah in the final redemption.

There were other prophets who spoke in resounding and stirring terms about the restoration of Israel's sovereignty under the house of David; of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple; about the overthrow of evil empires; and the ingathering of the dispersed of Israel to their homeland.

But it is Elijah who is uniquely suited to announce a vision that is so sublime that it might otherwise have gone unnoticed among the glorious exploits of Israel's deliverance, a message that speaks of the moral and spiritual transformation of our hearts:

And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.

When we have accomplished this crucial goal, we will be ready to enjoy a complete redemption.

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, March 22 2002.