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April 7, 2023

How to Meet Elijah the Prophet

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

"Shabbat Pesach: How to Meet Elijah the Prophet"
Rabbi Dan Ross

The first seders I can remember celebrating were at my grandparents’ home. My mom will tell you that she knew I was going to be a rabbi when at the ripe young age of five, I ran to grab a pillow just before the seder because I zealously needed something to recline on.

I don’t remember that moment.

But I do remember one of my favorite parts of the seder was opening the door for Elijah the Prophet. I remember racing back to the table to check his cup. And I remember being shocked to find that it was empty. And all the grown-ups swore that Elijah had really come, and that I had just missed him.

Legends of Elijah the Prophet abound. We tell countless tales of Elijah hiding in plain sight, wandering the world under many guises, helping Jews in times of need: The stranger who finds your wallet. The runner who stops to help you carry your groceries. I’ve even heard a rabbi swear that a Central Park carriage driver was Elijah. (Something about a brand-new horse and an Israeli accent.)

This Shabbat of Passover, I want to share one of these legends with you because it’s one of my favorites—and because I think it has an important message for this season.

Once there was a man who really wanted to meet Elijah the Prophet. And he had heard that the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Hasidism, knew where to find him.

So the man went to the Baal Shem Tov and asked him: “Where can I find Elijah the Prophet?”

The Baal Shem Tov smiled and said: “It’s simple. Passover is coming up next week. This is what you must do. Get two boxes. One of the boxes you will fill with toys and children’s clothes. The other you will fill with all the necessities for the seder:

A seder plate, matzah, maror, and a shank bone. And a true Pesach feast.

Then, the night of the first seder, you will go to the outskirts of town. There you will find a rickety old house. Once you find that house, don’t knock on the door right away. Stand there for a moment and listen.  Then, just before sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.

So, the man did just as the Baal Shem Tov had said. He found two boxes and filled them exactly as he had been instructed. He even went to the silversmith and purchased a beautiful new seder plate just for the occasion—he was finally going to meet Elijah the Prophet.

The night of the first seder, he took the boxes to the edge of town

and he found the rickety old house. He arrived just before sundown and stood outside the front door, and listened. Inside the house, he heard several children crying: “Mommy, we’re hungry and it’s almost Pesach. We have no food for the seder. And our clothes are in tatters. We have nothing nice to wear for the holiday.”

And the man heard the mother answer her children: “Don’t worry, children.

God will send us Elijah the Prophet to see to everything we need.”

Upon hearing the mother speak, the man grew very excited. He knew he was in the right place to meet Elijah. So, he knocked on the door. And when the woman opened it, he asked if he could join them for the holiday. Her face fell.

“Oh, we won’t be having a seder tonight. We have no plate, no matzah, no meal.”

“Don’t worry,” the man said, “I have everything we need for the seder in this box.

And in this one I have new clothes and toys for the children.”

She smiled and looked at her children. “Well in that case, we do have an extra chair. Of course you can join us! Thank you so much for your generosity!”

The seder was the most marvelous the man had ever attended. The family’s smiles glowed brighter than the festival candles. The children sang like angels.

Even the maror tasted a bit less bitter, and the matzah a little less like matzah. This was a seder fit for Elijah the Prophet.

The man waited in great anticipation for the moment he knew was coming.

When the children would get up from the table to open the door for Elijah.

And when they got up, he nearly leapt from his chair himself. As the children ran to the door, he saw their mother motion him toward the cup that had been set aside for Elijah. He politely declined–that was Elijah’s wine! So she quickly sipped from it herself.

As the children ran back to the table, the man noticed no one was with them.

They asked: “Did Elijah come?”

“Yes,” their mother said. “You can see that he drank his wine.”

The man was miffed. Elijah had not come. He had come all this way for nothing. That evening, after the seder, he kindly bid farewell to the family, and returned home crestfallen.

The next morning, the man went back to the Baal Shem Tov and told him what had happened.

“And you didn’t see Elijah?” he asked.

“I did not,” the man said.

“And you did everything I told you to do?”

“I did.”

“Well,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “It’s simple. You will have to do the same thing again, and return tonight for the second seder.”

So the man spent the day filling two boxes like before, and then he trekked out to the edge of town. He arrived at the same house, stood outside the same front door, and he listened once more.

Again, he heard the children crying: “Mommy, it’s so sad. We had such a nice first seder. Now we have nothing for the second.”

And then he heard the mother answer: “Children, don’t you remember you were crying yesterday, and I told you, ‘Don’t worry. God will send us Elijah the Prophet to see to everything we need.’ Wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come and bring us new clothes and toys and a delicious seder? I promise you that Elijah will return to us tonight as well.”

Then the man understood and smiled. And he knocked on the door. This Passover, during this season of hope and renewal, let us remember that Elijah the Prophet walks among us. Because each of us is a miracle waiting to happen.

Because we too can bring the feast. We too can wait at the door. We too can make dreams come true. So long as we pause and listen.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

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