Rabbi David Walk
Here in southwest Connecticut, Rabbi Daniel Cohen created a beautiful atmosphere a few months back with a campaign called Elijah Moments. Together with a local minister, Pastor Gregory Doll of Noroton Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Cohen turned visits to a local bakery and coffee shops into spiritual experiences by paying for another's cup of coffee or pastry. The only request made was to pay it forward by doing the same for another. This pleasant addition to the holiday season was named for the prophet Eliyahu. This seemed an unusual choice of inspirational figure. When last seen in the pages of our Tanach, Eliyahu was slaying members of other faiths. Eliyahu is often compared to the zealot Pinchas in Jewish tradition. He was the poster child for the Fierce Old Testament Prophet Challenge. So, why did my colleague choose him as the symbol of his campaign? When asked about the name of the campaign, Rabbi Cohen gave a marvelous answer, 'Elijah is a Biblical prophet who appears through history to spread light in the midst of darkness. He is the person who comes into your life and makes your day!' Perhaps the most famous connection to Eliyahu throughout Jewish history is the mystical gilui Eliyahu, or revelation of Eliyahu. Because he never died, having ascended to heaven while still alive, Eliyahu has been invoked as the purveyor of wondrous events over the centuries. There are literally thousands of such incidents cited in Jewish history, since the earliest rabbinic literature to contemporary folk tales in religious neighborhoods. When a tenth man was needed for a minyan or a mysterious stranger stepped in to help, we also assumed that the masked man was Eliyahu. Rabbi Cohen latched onto that inspiring image of Eliyahu. But is that the real basis for our people's special relationship to Eliyahu? As you'll see, I think not.
There's no denying that the Jewish people have unique feelings towards Eliyahu. We invoke his image every Saturday night, with the sad prospect of another dreary week staring us in the face we chant: Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi, Eliyahu hagiladi, speedily in our days come to us with Mashiach son of David. We set aside a seat of honor for him at every circumcision, as we proclaim: O, God, I hope for Your salvation; I wait for Your deliverance; O, God, I do Your bidding. And, of course, next week at every Seder we set out a special cup of wine for our favorite itinerant shikker, Eliyahu. So, what is the special nature of Eliyahu that causes him to transcend the ranks of all other prophets? The unique role of Eliyahu is stated in this week's Haftora: Lo, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord (Malachi 3:21). There you have it: Eliyahu will usher in the 'great and awesome' period of the future redemption. All the hoopla and reverence for him is predicated on this one central idea that he will stand shoulder to shoulder with the eventual Mashiach. But why him?
I've already referenced the relatively simple popular answer, namely that he's still alive and available. He's the only survivor of that long past prophetic era. That's also why there are stories that he will renew the biblical ordination based on the chain from Moshe, and that he will answer all unanswerable conundra of the Talmud. However, I believe that there is a more conceptual answer, one less dependent on serendipity. A few weeks ago we read the Haftorah for Ki Tisa which chronicles the famous confrontation on Mount Carmel between Eliyahu and the 450 prophets of Ba'al. In that story Eliyahu builds an altar from twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes. The Midrash compares that altar to the one built by Moshe.
Here's that critical Midrash: R. Tanchuma said in the house of R. Abba: "And through a prophet God brought Israel out of Egypt" (Hoshea 12:14) - this refers to Moshe, "And by a prophet they were preserved" - this refers to Eliyahu. We find two prophets of Israel from the tribe of Levi - first Moshe and then Eliyahu... Moshe redeemed them from Egypt... and Eliyahu redeemed them in the future... We find a complete parallel between Moshe and Eliyahu... Moshe gathered the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and Eliyahu gathered them at Mount Carmel; Moshe destroyed idolators... and Eliyahu destroyed idolators... Moshe prayed for the nation, "Do not destroy Your nation and Your inheritance", and Eliyahu prayed for Israel - "Answer me, God, answer me"... Through Moshe the nation achieved love of the Holy One... and through Eliyahu the nation achieved love of the Holy One, as it is written, "the Lord, He is God"... Moshe brought down fire and Eliyahu brought down fire... Moshe built an altar and Eliyahu built an altar... Moshe, when he built his altar... built it from twelve stones, like the number of the children of Israel, and Eliyahu, when he built his altar, built it according to the number of the tribes of Israel..." (Pesikta Rabati 4). Eliyahu is for his generation as Moshe had been for the generation of the exodus.
I think that the comparison between these two prophets requires one more essential element. They both stood up and acted alone. This ability to act alone was emphasized with Moshe when he killed the Egyptian. The verse says that he looked this way and that way before killing him (Exodus 2:12). The literal meaning is, of course, that he was looking for eyewitnesses. However, others suggest that he was looking to see if anyone else would stand up for this unfortunate Jew. Moshe only acted when it was clear that no one else would. Eliyahu acted similarly. Both before and after the Mount Carmel Competition, he found himself all alone. He even visits Mt. Sinai to duplicate Moshe's solitary vigil on that peak.
Both of these charismatic leaders teach us the necessity of acting alone when the need arises. The truly great leaders do what must be done, with or without help. May we have the strength of character to emulate their courage.