Parasha Hol Hamoed Pessah: From zealot to true believer

Pessah, the festival of our freedom, can be called the festival of Elijah, herald of the redemption of Israel and the world.

pessah wine matza 88 (photo credit: )
pessah wine matza 88
(photo credit: )
Pessah, the festival of our freedom, can be called the festival of Elijah, herald of the redemption of Israel and the world. Last week I tried to explain how the Almighty disabused Elijah of his fiery fanaticism, to teach him that the small still sound of loving explanation can be far more effective than avenging punishments (Elijah had slain the 450 false prophets of Baal) or the awesome miracle of the moment (the divine fire which descended on Elijah's sacrificial altar atop Mount Carmel). God tells Elijah that he misjudged the Israelites when he charged them with having rejected the divine covenant, that a true prophet dare not come to quick conclusions based only on external appearances. God gives Elijah a "long-haul" opportunity to personally witness Jewish commitment to the covenant via his 3,000-year presence at all Pessah Sedarim and circumcision celebrations wherever Israelites are to be found; and our very form of Pessah observance - with a Seder of questioning children and answering parents around a table filled with the warmth of wine and the loving acceptance of family - downplays the avenging miracles of the Exodus and emphasizes the "still small sounds" of Torah explanations and joyous singing. Did Elijah truly learn his lesson? The Talmud (B.T. Ta'anit 20a) records three incidents that prove he did. The first pictures an Elijah who does not punish but rather patiently teaches, and the lesson he tries to impart is the very antithesis of the inflexible zealot: "Our rabbis have taught, 'A person must always be soft and pliant like a reed and not hard or harsh like a cedar.' There was an incident in which R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon of Migdal Gedor [literally an enclosed and insular castle] was coming from his teacher's house. He was riding a donkey, traveling along a riverbank, filled with the rich joy of elitist self-importance because he had learned much Torah from his teacher. Who came his way to meet him but Elijah the Prophet [Tosafot, citing Tractate Derech Eretz] in the guise of a very ugly individual. The ugly man said to R. Elazar: 'Peace unto you, my teacher' But R. Elazar did not return the greeting. Instead, R. Elazar said to the individual: 'Empty one! How ugly you are. Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?' He [the ugly man, Elijah] replied: "I do not know. But go and tell the Craftsman who made me, 'How ugly is this vessel You made!' "When R. Elazar realized he had sinned, he got down from the donkey and prostrated himself before the ugly man, saying to him: 'I have afflicted you with my words; forgive me.' He [Elijah] answered him: 'I cannot forgive you until and unless you go to the Craftsman who made me and tell Him how ugly is the vessel that He made.' "R. Elazar traveled behind the ugly man, seeking his forgiveness until he reached his city. The people of the city came out to greet R. Elazar, saying to him: 'Peace unto you, teacher, teacher, master, master.' He [the ugly man, Elijah] said to the people: 'Who are you calling teacher?' They said to him, 'The one who is traveling behind you.' "He [the ugly man] said to them: 'If he is a teacher, may there not be many more like him in Israel.' "They said to him, 'Why do you say this?' "[The ugly man] answered, 'He did such and such to me.' "They [R. Elazar's congregants] said to him, 'Nevertheless, forgive him, because he is a man of great Torah learning.' "He [the ugly man, Elijah] said to them, 'Because of you I shall forgive him. But he dare not make a habit of acting in such a haughty manner [toward anyone who looks different or ugly].' "Immediately, R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon entered the house of study and expounded, 'A person must always be soft and pliant like a reed and not hard or harsh like a cedar.' It is for this reason that the reed is used to make quills with which to write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot." Apparently, Elijah learned to educate rather than eradicate, and was on the lookout for the self-assured arrogance - the zealots' outer garment - which revels in putting others down. He also learned - and taught others - not to make snap judgments about individuals, but rather to look deeply into each person's heart and soul before condemning anyone. The Talmud continues to record (Ta'anit 22a) that Elijah once informed R. Beroka that the only one in the marketplace who would merit a significant seat in the world to come was a man wearing black-laced shoes (Jews generally wore white laces as a sign that they awaited the rebuilding of the Temple and the rites of purification), and who had no ritual fringes on his garments. The dumbfounded R. Beroka ran after the gentile-looking man and got to know him. It turns out that he was a prison guard who would protect with his life Jewish women prisoners from being defiled; he also spent much time among gentiles, who thought he was one of them. Whenever he heard of an impending pogrom, he would warn the Jewish leaders in advance. Finally, the Gemara goes on to say that Elijah pointed out to R. Beroka another two men destined for the world to come: They were two comedians, who cheered the depressed and made peace between those who were quarreling. Undoubtedly Elijah internalized God's love and understanding for His children and influenced the major motif of the Seder: its attempt to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents" (end of Malachi 3). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.