In the religious imagination of the Rabbis, Elijah, the prophet, appears as a traveler, a warrior, a beggar, an Arab merchant, a prostitute, a sage. He oftentimes appears in the doorway (as during the Passover Seder), at the mouth of the cave, in places and times of transition. For the sages, Elijah represents redemption.
Elijah appears in the porous moments of one’s life, when the soul is ready or in need. Sometimes, we do not discern his presence until memory unveils it: a stranger in the right place at the right time who showed kindness, who gave direction, warning, or advice. A moment that we realize was momentous becomes an “Elijah moment.” In the same breath that they would say “Elijah,” the ancient sages often said, “May he be remembered for good/zachur la’tov,” an epithet not for the departed, but for the living.
Many years ago, a beautiful Israeli Tallit appeared in the Synagogue on the day after a Bar Mitzvah. No family, guest or community member claimed it. The owner of such a beautiful prayer shawl could not simply have forgotten about it. Yet, there it was. In the world of religious imagination, there was only one explanation: The Tallit had been left by Elijah, the Prophet. What would we do to honor the gift? From that day to this, the Tallit of Elijah, the Prophet, has been used in the community as a Chuppah and as a covering for the Chair of Elijah at the Brit ceremony of a newborn. Most regularly, each year for the entire month before Rosh HaShannah, a Chair of Elijah, draped with the Tallit of Elijah, the Prophet, is set in the Synagogue sanctuary before the Ark awaiting anyone who would like a quiet moment in pursuit of insight and strength for the year ahead. How can you know that the Tallit was a gift of Elijah? Ask anyone in the community.
The sages have said: “Happy is the one who has met Elijah, the Prophet, and sat next to him.” We all have our Elijah stories.
Hearing the Elijah stories of tradition and telling our own stories is a celebration of religious imagination, of possibility, of redemption in the everyday.