Everyone’s favorite Passover guest is a ghost.
In one of the Seder’s most mystical moments, we pour a glass for Elijah—that mysterious ancient prophet whose arrival will signify the messianic redemption. And we open the door for his anticipated entrance.
For those who might need a refresher on Elijah’s biblical backstory, the Book of Kings describes how this native of Gilead, circa 900 BCE, had the ability to declare famine, resuscitate dead children, outshine and then slaughter 450 prophets of Ba’al in a game of “who worships the real true God?,” rebuke the wicked King Ahab, hear God’s “still small voice” (per the King James Version rendering of 1 Kings 19:12) on a mountain after despairing of his ability to inspire his fellow Israelites to repent, and mentor his successor Elisha before ascending to heaven in a chariot amid a whirlwind. His eventual return, the tradition goes, will come when the world is to be redeemed.
While Jews think about Elijah primarily at Passover, he’s actually been a fixture of American political culture from the very beginning—not only at Passover, and not even only for Jews.
Upon George Washington’s death on Dec. 14, 1799, the Pennsylvanian priest Samuel Magaw offered a sermon titled “An Oration Commemorative of the Virtues and Greatness of General Washington.” In it, Magaw invoked Elijah both to praise the president’s virtues as everlasting—and to signal the preacher’s own political support for John Adams as the bearer of Washington’s mantle in the election of 1800. He sermonized:
Consolation is that your venerable Chief is not to be considered as moldering in dust, and gone forever—but, gone a little before, assuredly invested with a life unperishable … as the sage Franklin expressed, on a valuable friend’s decease … “His carriage was first ready, and he is gone before us. We could not all conveniently start together; and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and we know where to find him.”—He hath gone before you! He hath ascended like Elijah, in his triumphal car, and bids us follow.”
Reassuring his flock that their leader had appointed a worthy successor as Elijah had appointed Elisha before ascending to heaven, Magaw continued: “He hath left, meanwhile, an exalted portion of his spirit, and his mantle, to an Adams.”
A fellow Philadelphian preacher, William Rogers, offered a similar message on Feb. 22, 1800, referring to Adams as being “Like Elisha of Old … may he possess a double portion of the Spirit and virtues of his once intimate—affectionate—but now entombed friend!”
To these preachers, Washington, like Elijah, was a wonderworking figure beyond time. His legacy unperishable, he left behind a national moral compass to be followed by future generations.
Despite preachers’ politics, Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in the election of 1800. Yet Elijah would remain. In an 1817 letter from Adams to Jefferson regarding the recently defeated Napoleon, Adams evoked the prophet in a critique of the French emperor. “A Whirlwind raised him and a Whirlwind blowed him a Way to St Helena,” Adams wrote. “He is very confident that the Age of Reason is not past; and So am I; but I hope that Reason will never again rashly and hastily create Such Creatures as him.” In 1865, the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi rendered a fresco that adorns the United States Capitol building. In it, Washington is sitting amid the clouds of heaven. Titled “The Apotheosis of Washington,” it depicts America’s first president being carried by a whirlwind.
Every Elijah needs his King Ahab—his nemesis—and Washington’s was England’s King George III. Thus Charleston’s John Lewis delivered a sermon titled “Naboth’s Vineyard” in 1777. Just as Ahab had unlawfully seized the vineyard of and killed an innocent man in 1 Kings 21 at the urging of his wife Jezebel, Lewis argued, the British crown was unjustly stealing colonists’ property for personal gain. It was up to General Washington to offer George III’s army an Elijah-style rebuke in the manner of 21:19’s “hast thou killed and also taken possession?”
In America’s earliest decades then, it was Elijah to whom Americans turned in referencing a peerless figure of political ambition, fortitude, and lasting civic influence.
Antebellum America was also visited by Elijah. In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise. As historian Mark Noll notes in America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, President Franklin Pierce, who supported the South on this issue, was criticized as a “latter day Ahab, deaf to the warnings of his Elijahs, the anti-Nebraska clergy.” Abraham Lincoln, too, encountered Elijah—in the form of a letter from the former mayor of New York, Fernando Wood. Urging him to make peace with the South, Wood referenced the words describing Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12 when he wrote: “your Inaugural address … pointed out with prophetic vision … that after a bloody and terrible struggle ‘the still small voice of reason’ would intervene and settle the controversy.” Frederick Douglass had earlier praised the British emancipation of West Indies as having come “not by the sword, but by the word; not by the brute force of numbers, but by the still small voice of truth.” The former slave Wallace Willis also saw in Elijah the hope for a more tranquil and unified polity, as Daniel Matt notes in his recent biography of the biblical figure. Willis’ spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a lyrical interpretation of the prophet’s ascension.
To these advocates for national unity, it wasn’t Elijah’s fiery wonderworking whirlwind riding that resonated. It was his having heard God’s quietly rendered call. Perhaps, they hoped, this tranquil divine uttering might usher in a more united United States.
I’m sometimes up, and I’m sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But I know my soul is heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home …
If you get there before I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends that I’m a-comin’ too
During and after Reconstruction, Elijah kept coming, sipping from the cup of liberation. Francis James Grimke, one of the leading African American clergy until his death in 1937, in a sermon in 1900, compared Elijah’s efforts to steer Israel back toward its God to America’s need to morally repent. “For years he had labored hard for the reformation of his countrymen,” Grimke preached. “He saw the people rushing headlong into idolatry and every form of wickedness and under the direction and inspiration of the Almighty, he threw himself with all the energy and impetuosity of his nature into the work of reforming them.”
In 1909, William Jennings Bryan, later to become secretary of state, also evoked Elijah as a symbol of American courage. Addressing the Northwestern Law School banquet, he told the assembled: “We need more Elijahs in the pulpit today—more men who will dare to upbraid an Ahab and defy a Jezebel.”
American politicians continue to evoke Elijah today. In 2019, Hillary Clinton eulogized Congressman and civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings as having, like his biblical namesake, “weathered storms and earthquakes but never lost his faith” as he “raised the next generation of leaders” and “even worked a few miracles.” With the road toward social equality taking longer than hoped, it was the harshness of Elijah’s moral rebuke that was hearkened to.
The 21st century’s self-help ethos has also enlisted Elijah. In her 2013 commencement address at Harvard, Oprah Winfrey told the graduates “If you’re willing to listen to, be guided by, that still small voice that is the GPS within yourself—to find out what makes you come alive—you will be more than OK. You will be happy.”
Jews aren’t the only ones, American history has shown, who have been looking for Elijah with expectant eyes. A harbinger of hope, a rebuker of the unrighteous, a hearer of stillness amid fractured times, the Seder night’s specter continues to visit, stirring Americans to perceive in his cup their own redemptive possibilities.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His edited books include the recently released Esther in America, the first full-length treatment of the Megillah’s interpretation in and impact on the United States, as well as Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.