Passover’s Perennial No-Show
At the Seder, we open the door for Elijah. As a child, I thought he’d actually appear. Then I grew up, and anticipation faded into resignation.
I was only 17, but suddenly I felt old.
It was the night of the Seder, three years ago. I stood by a wide-open door, a door that had not been knocked on, by a threshold that was unmistakably empty, and wondered whether the person I’d hoped—maybe even expected—to appear had been a figment of my imagination, a fading piece of the naïve child I had been.
The weeks before Passover that year had found the Orthodox Jewish world buzzing, more than usual, with talk of the Messiah. The Iranian nuclear threat, the growing anti-Semitism worldwide, Israel being torn to pieces by the media—It only leads to one conclusion, the old men in synagogue exclaimed and the schoolgirls whispered. We are now experiencing the birth pangs of the Messianic era. Any day now, he’ll come on a magnificent white horse. Students were told to do more good deeds, to give more charity, to refrain from slander. We women were encouraged to learn more Torah, wear longer skirts, pray more; according to the Sages, after all, it is in righteous women’s merit that the Messiah will come.
Even Brighton Beach’s expatriates from Odessa and Kiev had heard of the rumors.
My Ukrainian-born grandmother had called several days before the holiday: “You know what I just heard a rabbi say on the Russian radio? According to the Jewish calendar, this year the sun lines up in the same position as it had during Creation. This happens only once in 28 years!”
“It’s the year of birkat hakhama,” I said. The vernal equinox, the completion of the solar cycle according to Talmudic literature.
“But this year’s position is the same one as the year of the actual Exodus from Egypt,” said my secular grandmother. “It has all these energies. Of freedom, miracles, you know?”
Even my Soviet-educated relatives, the ones who’d pile into small Toyotas and drive in from Brooklyn to join us on Seder nights in New Jersey, were wondering about what might happen on Passover. The Russian rationalists were careful to check the family passports’ expiration dates. Who knows? Maybe Elijah the Prophet will come this year and will take us to Jerusalem; it would be a shame if our papers were out of order.
My younger sisters, too, were making plans for the impending Redemption and checking Israeli real-estate websites for pretty villas. Mili, then 7 years old, announced that she was keeping a packed bag under her bed, in anticipation of a sudden journey to Jerusalem. I had laughed and patted her shoulder.
Yet despite my laughing, I, too, found myself anticipating. I’d lie in bed, look at my posters of the Galilee and the Mediterranean, and wonder how it was that I could be such a worldly 17-year-old, a reader of Chekhov and student of calculus, and still, secretly, fervently, believe in a Messiah. How was it, I wondered, that I found myself setting an extra seat for Elijah, just in case he needed to sit down and eat some of my mother’s chicken de provence before continuing to the next house?
I was sure that his arrival was imminent. Even when, during the first Seder that year, my father rose from the table to open the door for Elijah and ask God to redeem us, to pour out His wrath upon the nations that know Him not, upon the kingdoms that did not call upon His name, for having consumed Jacob and for having laid waste his habitation, and for Petliura’s crusades and Stalin’s purges, for Babi Yar and for that Iron Curtain, too. All of history raining down on us, until we’re forced to throw our doors open and demand justice. Pour out Thy rage upon them, let Thy fury overtake them.
But I sat in dread, because suddenly I realized that there was no justice. The other side of the door would be empty, as it always is, only a slight mocking breeze, a wet street with street lamps in pools of yellow light.
We stood at the table quietly as Papa recited the prayer by the empty doorway.
As a child, I thought that the longer that Papa lingered by the door, the greater the chances that it would happen: that Elijah would come running up our front path, panting and out of breath, his embroidered robes flying. Wait, wait, Doctor Dovid, son of Leib! I’m late, the neighbors held me up! And each year that would pass without Elijah’s arrival, I learned to nod and insist that he’d undoubtedly come next year.
According to our tradition, Elijah’s wine glass would be left out overnight on the kitchen counter, in case he decided to show up later. Growing up, I used to jump out of bed on Passover mornings and check the glass and, when noting that the wine level had dropped by a hundredth of a millimeter, conclude that Elijah had indeed stopped by and taken a sip.
But that night, facing that open door and that invitation that once again went unheeded, I stopped expecting Elijah; he became the friend that always canceled last-minute. I understood that he wouldn’t come during the Haggadah reading, not when we opened the door for him, not while we slept. Not even on a night when the sun’s position was in the exact same place as it had been during the Exodus.
Rabbinical reasoning behind our pre-Passover search for hametz leads Jews through a theological maze, but everything is illuminated at the end