Thursday, 30 Mar 2023

Written by Nicola Feuchtwang

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death……’

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was the first play I studied in depth at school. The drama and the language are thrilling, and it is also one of those literary texts which is ‘full of quotes’:  we experience that  flash of recognition as we encounter a familiar phrase or passage, and realise that this is its original home, the source from which it entered our everyday language…  (‘Tomorrow and tomorrow…’).   Of course that can happen with almost any popular book or film, but the experience is probably most powerful with Shakespeare, and of course the Bible.   I’ll return to that later…..

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in Macbeth is the banquet in Act 3:  Macbeth has become king, and has hired assassins to despatch his former comrade Banquo.  As the feast begins, he is secretly informed that his wishes have been carried out.  He welcomes his guests, lamenting  Banquo’s absence, construing it as disrespectful …– and then he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his place at the table…!   The ghost does not speak, but he does not need to.  We in the audience, as surely as the terrified Macbeth, understand that the ghost’s appearance signifies that Macbeth’s dark deeds will catch up with him sooner or later.

In a few days’ time, we will sit around our Seder tables.  Gathering to celebrate our historical liberation from slavery, we will invite hungry strangers to join us; we will fill a cup of wine for Elijah, and after the meal we will open the door to let him in….

Just suppose this year, this week, Elijah actually responds to our invitation and turns up – how will we feel? There is good reason to think that we should be terrified. As we read at the very end of our Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol from the book of Malachi,  God tells us:

‘Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of Adonai.

He will reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.’

Why do we read this just before Pesach? Mal’achi, meaning  ‘my messenger’, is the last of the Nevi’im, the prophetic books of Torah. We know virtually nothing about the author except that he preached when the second Temple was standing. Ritual practice had become corrupt, family discord was rife, and failings of social justice were commonplace.  Malachi railed against idolatry and improper behaviour, especially by the priests, foretelling that Israelite society was doomed unless the people changed their ways.

People do not choose to be prophets, but feel called or compelled to the role, driven by passion for God and for justice, forcing them to speak truth to power, regardless of personal cost and listener discomfort.  In that respect, Malachi is a ‘typical’ prophet, if there is such a person.  His book (like a Shakespeare play) is ‘full of quotes’ – phrases familiar either from other prophetic books, or so powerful that they have entered our liturgy and our conversations about justice:

‘Have we not all one Father?  Did not one God create us….?’

Despite the terrifying threat of possible ‘utter destruction’ however, Malachi differs from some other prophets in insisting that doom is not inevitable. He distinguishes between the fate of the ‘evildoer and those who pervert justice’, and the fate of ‘yir’ei Adonai’, those who revere God.  For the former, Malachi foresees that God will indeed be a ‘relentless accuser’ and the prophet envisages them being utterly consumed.  Yet the alternative ‘tomorrow’ for the righteous who ‘talk with one another’  is that ‘a sun of victory will rise to bring healing …’.  Hope is not lost if enough people stand up for what they know to be right. And the decisive factor is to be reconciliation, genuine communication.

Malachi employs a striking ‘Q&A’ literary format.  Again and again, in God’s name, he alleges shortcoming or failure, anticipating his listeners’ response before spelling out the problem in detail.

  • ‘Turn back to me, and I will turn back to you…. But you ask, “How shall we turn back?”’
  • ‘You have spoken hard words…But you ask, “what have we been saying?” You have said “It is useless to serve God… what have we gained….?”’

There is a German expression ‘Ton macht die Musik’ – it isn’t just what we say but how we say it. The question ‘What are you doing?’ can be asked in a tone of quiet curiosity or in loud outrage.   Perhaps we should  hear God’s words to Israel through Malachi as a dialogue between parent and child – sometimes castigating but ultimately expressing real understanding:  ‘I know how it feels, but if you change, you really can alter the outcome…’.

This dialogue carries a profound message for us at Pesach.  A key element of our Seder ritual is ‘higadta l’vincha’ – inviting questions, tailoring our responses to the attitude and ability of the questioner, ensuring that liberation from slavery is never just a fairy story but becomes part of the psyche of every Jew.  The responsibility for doing this lies with every one of us. How a parent figure responds to a question can make all the difference  – even the so-called ‘rasha’ (the ‘wicked’ child) may be just misguided, or disenchanted, or going through a stroppy phase. Should we really ‘set his teeth on edge’ as the Haggadah proposes, and risk alienating him further, perhaps put him off Judaism for life? Or should we rather redouble our efforts to connect, to reconcile?

Pesach is not just about special food, and re-telling a story from the past about how our ancestors escaped the tyranny of slavery in Egypt.  Prophetic Judaism teaches that we were freed from slavery in order to receive Torah, to challenge injustice and oppression, to work towards making this world a better place, to bring about a future liberation.

What about Elijah?  The Bible portrays a zealot; a difficult, uncompromising man who apparently works miracles, even perhaps forcing the hand of God – certainly not a role model for good relationships!  So why (according to  Malachi) will it be Elijah whom God will send to repair our families?  The clue lies in the end of his story, for the biblical Elijah does not die, but is carried to heaven in a fiery chariot.  Hence the folklore: in legend he becomes an intermediary between heaven and earth, the character who will herald the messiah at the end of history.  So we keep a place for him at every brit-milah, we evoke him at Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, and we invite him to our Seder.

The Elijah of Jewish tradition is not a Banquo, the phantom of a guilty mind, a harbinger of inevitable doom. The Elijah invoked by the prophet Malachi, and by our Haggadah, represents hope and the possibility of change.  Their message is that our ‘tomorrow’ is in our hands.  We need to hear the questions which our community’s children are asking us; the challenges and concerns which must be addressed.  If we turn our hearts to each other, our invitation to Elijah at the Seder can be authentic, and we will have nothing to fear when he shows up.

Nicola Feuchtwang, LBC Student Rabbi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.