Monday, March 07, 2005

Hello, Elijah Speaking

I refer, of course, to the biblical prophet Elijah, one of the major figures in the Book of Kings. He was renowned for his fierce stand against idol worship and his dramatic ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire.

But Elijah also has a gentler side. According to Jewish tradition, he is present at every circumcision. He visits every Jewish home toward the end of the Passover seder to take a sip of wine or grape juice from the special cup each household lovingly sets aside for him. And every Saturday night Jews sing a hymn asking that he appear to announce the arrival of the Messiah, heralding a time of peace and tranquility the like of which we have never seen on earth.

In Jewish folklore, Elijah the Prophet is a kind of Jewish Superman. (Or perhaps Superman is the American Elijah?) He is the one who steps in at the last possible moment, when the situation is desperate and there seems to be no way out. No task is too great for him, no method too dangerous, if it means saving the life or livelihood of a person in trouble. According to one story, Elijah once appeared in the guise of a prostitute in order to rescue an innocent man fleeing capture. In another, he built a palace by himself overnight in order to save the livelihood of a poor man. Elijah is also learned in all the secrets of the cosmos, though only a privileged few merit to study them together with the immortal prophet.

In every generation, including this one, people have their own stories to tell about meeting Elijah. All these stories have one thing in common: when things are at their worst, Elijah the Prophet appears to save the situation, giving people the encouragement they need to go on or just doing something nice for someone who could use a favor.

Does Elijah the Prophet really spend his time roaming the earth, seeking out people who need help? I don’t know. But I believe that Elijah is potentially every one of us. To put it another way, perhaps every human being is endowed with a spark of Elijah’s essence. At some point in our lives, someone may need help just when we happen to be able to provide it. And as soon as we take up the challenge we become Elijah, if only for a brief moment. That’s what I think, anyway.

Here’s an example. About fifteen years ago a newly observant friend of mine was in a bookstore in a small Israeli town. He wanted to buy a prayer book but was a bit short of cash. Another man who did not know my friend at all happened to be in the store just then and overheard the conversation between my friend and the proprietor. He rushed over to the counter, plunked down the remaining amount and dashed out of the bookstore before my friend could thank him. My friend was convinced that this man was Elijah. I agree.

Then there’s what happened to a close friend of mine just a few weeks ago. This extraordinary woman has been caring for her seriously ill husband for more than a year and a half. Unfortunately, during this time their financial situation has become quite challenging, to put it mildly.

Early one morning, my friend’s doorbell rang. Since she was busy taking care of her husband, she couldn’t answer right away. When she opened the door a short while later, she found a plastic bag tied to the screen-door latch containing hot, fresh bread and an unmarked envelope. The envelope contained a generous donation for my friend and her husband. There was nothing else, no note of explanation. Just the bread and the envelope.

As my astonished friend stood holding the bag, her phone rang. On the other end was a woman whose voice she didn’t recognize.

“Are you home?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” my friend replied, perplexed. “Who is this?”

“We left a bag on your door,” the woman said. “Did you find it?”

“Yes, but who is this?” my friend persisted.

“That’s not important,” the woman answered.

“Please, I would really like to be able to thank you properly,” my friend said.

“No, no, it’s really not important,” the woman said. “I just wanted to make sure you received the bag.”

“But I want to thank you,” my friend said. “Please, won’t you tell me who you are?”

“Friends,” the woman answered. “We just want to help. All the best to you.”

And with that, Elijah said goodbye and hung up.

(Cross-posted on Israelity)

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