Of the many cherished rituals of the Passover Seder, one of my favorites is the setting out of the Kos Eliyahu, the Cup of Elijah.
Many families set an extra glass of wine in the center of the table, and some have an entire extra place setting before an empty chair. At a particular point during the service, we open the door to invite the prophet Elijah to come in and join us at the festive table.
The Bible tells us that Elijah was ferried up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Many of our faith believe that he is the Messiah and eagerly await his return. On that day, it is said, the dead will rise and the Diaspora will end, with the Jewish people gathered up al arbah kanfot ha’aretz (from the four corners of the earth) to return to the Land of Israel where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt and we will again offer the Biblically prescribed sacrifices as in the days of old. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we sing at the Seder table.
There is deep, multilayered symbolism in setting a place for Elijah at table and opening the door to invite him to enter. The empty place at table is an obvious reminder of those no longer among us: Members of our own families who have passed on, those who have given their lives for our country and even those who live on, but from whom we are separated by miles and circumstances.
“Come, all ye who are hungry” and celebrate the Passover with us, we recite in the liturgy. Passover is a celebration of freedom from the shackles of bondage, but we are reminded that there are still multitudes of our fellow humans who are not free. In many parts of the world, people remain enslaved by ideologies, cultural restraints and draconian laws. Here at our very doorstep are the hungry and homeless; we are reminded that it is our duty to ease their suffering and to tend to their needs just as God tended to ours so many centuries ago in Egypt. And, of course, let us not forget the many among us who are imprisoned within their own souls, victims of mental illness, addiction and despair that rob them of the opportunity to fulfill what might have been.
Opening the door is a symbol of our obligation to open our hearts to those less fortunate than ourselves. We speak in poetic terms of caring for the widow and the orphan, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. There is never a shortage of people in need within our own communities, and we are reminded at this time of year that we must not harden our hearts and shut them out, regardless of how distasteful we may personally find the task. Seeing the homeless on the street may offend our senses and the idea of giving up some of our hard-earned money as charitable donations may offend our sensibilities. But we must never forget that there, but for the grace of God, go we. For so many of us, the distance between here and there is little more than a paycheck or two, just one illness of a child or automotive breakdown away.
There are some who compare leaving a glass of wine for Elijah on the night of Passover to leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. In the case of dear old Saint Nick, however, this classic childhood gesture is primarily one of thanks for the gifts. In the case of Elijah, our gesture is infused with a profound sense of hope. As we pray for our own redemption, we are called upon to recognize that a better future for us and for our children is only possible when we open our doors, our hearts and our wallets to the disenfranchised who would love nothing better than to sit down at our table and be counted as valued members of our families.