Elijah (Eliyahu in the Hebrew) the Tishbite is one of the most important and most complex characters in biblical and Jewish lore. One might even say he is second only to Moses.
We know that he was a passionate opponent of idolatry and in particular of King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. They made a concerted effort to rid their land of anyone who did not worship Baal. They hounded Elijah, who was pursued relentlessly by Ahab’s forces and spent much of his life in hiding or in disguise. He emerged to challenge the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in the famous episode where he and they competed to see whose deity was more powerful. And in fact he defies the law of not sacrificing outside the Temple!
Elijah brought down fire from heaven that consumed his sacrifice, despite its being soaked in water (or paraffin for the skeptics)! Heavenly fire is something that is recorded in the Bible several times as a Divine tool. Fire can be destructive, killing. Yet it warms, feeds, and nourishes. It was used throughout the Bible as a metaphor and code for mysticism. It too, as any intense religion, can burn and destroy. Often mysticism descends into superstition, magic, and corruption. But it can also nourish the spiritual side of humanity. And of course Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in his chariot of fire has always been the symbol of the ultimate merger of the physical and the spiritual.
There are two sides to Elijah. Having defeated Baal, he then called on the masses to rise up and kill the Baal priests and destroy their sanctuaries. Very aggressive. Yet he was a gentle, spiritual man despite being something of zealot. Indeed, he describes himself as “zealous on behalf of God”, reminiscent of Pinchas in the book of Numbers, who is similarly described. The zealot defies conventional authority. He takes the law into his one hands.A dangerous precedent.
For me, the crucial narrative in the Book of Kings is when he was on the run and asked for Divine reassurance. He stood in front of his desert cave (another nod to Moses who asked for reassurance after the Golden Calf episode), and God passed by him while he was in a cleft of a rock. The text (2 Kings 19:11-12) says:
“There was a great, powerful whirlwind that smashed rocks, but God was not in the whirlwind. And then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after that fire, but God was not in the fire. Only after that came a quiet, still sound.”
And that was what Elijah recognized as God.
Elijah’s God is not the loud, mighty fighter, but rather the soft, quiet voice that we recognize as something good rather than violent. But Elijah himself was tough and demanding. He insisted his student Elisha follow him without going back to say goodbye to his parents. Another example of defying tradition. Elijah became his father substitute. And when Elijah went up to heaven in his chariot of fire, Elisha called after him as he disappeared:
“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel.”
Perhaps this is the origin of having a chair for Elijah at every circumcision. There are lots of other reasons, but this my favorite—he was the father of all Israel and present in the pain as well as the victory. In the Bible he gave children life when they appeared to be dead. Blood is the substance of life. It is sanctified in circumcision, in sacrifices and preparing food. But it is the symbol of murder and death. Life and death coexist, the beginning of life and the end. The good and the bad.
There is another role for Elijah in our tradition. He ushers in the Messianic era when humanity will finally learn to live without war, crime, and oppression. The question is whether he is the actual Messiah or the precursor. The one who will teach us what to when a new era begins, what to keep and what to jettison. What the role of religion might be in a better happier world. This is, of course, why we have a cup of wine for him on the Seder night on Pesach and why we open the door in the hope that he will arrive and bring peace and a new phase.
Where do we get this idea of Elijah solving everything from? The Talmud loves debates. But when it cannot solve a problem, it ends the discussion with the word Teyku. Let’s ignore the etymological origin of the word. Teyku has come to mean “a draw” in modern Hebrew parlance. A drawn result of a soccer match. A fanciful combination of the first letters of the words “Tishbi Yetareytz Kushiot UAbayot.” The Tishbite (Elijah) will solve all questions and problems.” And more obviously, the Mishna often says, “This problem will have to be left until Elijah comes.
That is another link to children. The Torah repeats many times the importance of asking, of challenging. “When (or if) your children will ask you about these laws.” This is the origin of the four sons asking four searching questions on the Seder night. Elijah becomes the father of questions, of challenging, of not accepting just because one is told so.
The oldest sources we have that discuss Elijah’s role are in the Mishna. In Eduyot it says:
“It is a tradition dating back to Moses on Sinai that Elijah will come…according to the Chachamim…to bring peace to the world, as the prophet Malachi says, ‘Behold I am sending you Elijah the prophet on the great day to reconcile parents to children and children to parents.'”
This seems to be talking about Messianism as Maimonides describes it. In which case, originally Elijah was meant to be the Messiah!
Yet the Mishna in Sotah also talks about the chaotic period before the Messiah comes and doesn’t mention Elijah. This is clearly another question we will have to leave until Elijah comes!
Elijah lived nearly 3,000 years ago. If Moses remains with us through the law, Elijah is the figure who stands for the battle for our survival. He is the one who is present with us every time a child is circumcised, every time we celebrate Passover, every time we end the Shabbat with Havdalah, every time things get so bad we dream of salvation, of emerging from death and into life, out of suffering and into a state of recovery.
Yet he is also the symbol of a tradition constantly renewing itself, finding new ways of giving significance to ancient traditions. He a zealot for the survival of the Jewish people, and he sometimes breaks the law and tradition for the greater good, for the sake of the people over the rulebook. Good things do not come easily. They must be fought for. What is right and good does not come easily. But he knows that only by questioning, and by caring—by hearing the soft, gentle, loving sounds, rather than harsh, aggressive, punitive voices—can we truly reach a state of goodness for everyone who is willing to grasp it. Is he the Messiah? Who knows. But as Americans like to say, “I love this guy.”