One of the heroes of the Passover Seder is, of course, Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet. We pour the Cup of Elijah and many even open the door for Elijah towards the end of the recitation of the Haggadah.
This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. It commemorates the miracle in Egypt just prior to the Exodus in which the Egyptians were fighting among themselves as the Egyptian first-born were clamoring for Pharaoh to let the Jews go. The first-born worried that they might die in the tenth, devastating plague.
On this Shabbat, in most communities, a special Haftarah is read during the morning service. It comes from the Prophet Malachi and is in the very last of the books of the prophets. The final words are “Behold I shall send you Elijah the Prophet before the arrival of that great and awesome day of God. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
The simple and straightforward meaning of this verse is that parents and children will be reconciled. No longer will there be any generation gaps. All the age groups will be on the same page.
But in his commentary, Rashi offers an alternative interpretation. The verse can also be understood to mean “I shall return the hearts of the fathers through their children.” Now that’s a twist. He says that God will cause the hearts of the fathers to be returned (to Him) by their own children.
Yes, v’heishiv has the same root as teshuvah. The children will inspire their parents to return to the way of God.
I ask you, are we not experiencing this in our own time? Our generation is witness to the phenomenon of a veritable teshuvah revolution. We are privileged to be experiencing a global spiritual renaissance of no small significance.
If in Egypt of old the Torah described the aftermath of the Plague of the First Born with the words, “There was no house without someone who died,” then in our own days we can truly say, “There is no house in which there is not someone alive.”
In countless Jewish homes today, there is at least one family member who has decided to make the life-changing decision to embrace a traditional Jewish way of life and become Torah-observant. They have become spiritually “alive.”
How many secular mothers who never kept kosher have transformed their own kitchens to be kosher-compliant simply because their children have embraced kashrut and no Jewish mother will be denied the pleasure of feeding her child?
Decades ago, as a young rabbi here in Johannesburg, I would do a considerable amount of counselling for parents and children when these things began to occur and there was much angst and even anger in many Jewish homes.
“What do you mean you won’t eat my chicken soup?” said many a devastated Jewish mother to her newly observant child.
And there’s another argument I often had to adjudicate to keep the peace in quite a few families: “Since you started keeping Shabbat you are destroying our family unity by not coming to grandma for Friday night dinner. You won’t drive and now you are driving a wedge into our family!”
In the beginning, parents would set up a little corner of the kitchen with a microwave for the “errant” child to prepare their own kosher meals. Today, homes and families are being transformed through the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence of children. Numerous Jewish homes have gone kosher to accommodate a child. And very often, with time and patience, the whole family buys into it, and it becomes part and parcel of their lifestyle.
I remember once hearing a story from the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself about a family in Israel that had experienced something along these lines.
The Rebbe famously introduced the concept of neshek to mean something different than the Hebrew word for “weapon.” It stood for neirot shabbat kodesh and referred to one of his Mitzvah Campaigns in which Jewish girls, some as young as three years old, would be encouraged to light a Shabbat candle to usher in the holy day.
Apparently, one little girl in Israel was given a Shabbat candlestick by a Chabad activist so she would begin lighting a candle on Fridays before sunset. She was very taken by the idea and very much wanted to start doing this mitzvah with her own candlestick. But her family was rather secular and her mother was adamant that she was not going to do it in her home.
Well, you know how children have a way of breaking down even the most stubborn parental resistance. This little girl wouldn’t give up. She kept begging her mother to allow her to light the Shabbat candle until, eventually, her mother acquiesced and gave her consent.
The home remained non-observant of Shabbat, but the little girl would faithfully light her candle every Friday before sunset.
After a few weeks, someone in the family began feeling uncomfortable watching television while the flame of the Shabbat candle was shining on the table. So, the suggestion was made that while the candle was burning, they would keep the TV switched off. Later, another suggestion was put forward: “If we’re not watching TV anyway, we may as well make the Kiddush over wine while we’re waiting for the flame to die down.” After a few weeks of Kiddush, they decided to buy challah and break the Shabbat loaves of bread after reciting the Kiddush.
Slowly but surely, the house and the household were moved to grow their Jewish commitment. Gradually, the family was completely transformed. One little girl’s single Shabbos light had inspired her entire family.
And that is just one story among millions.
We have been privileged to experience this prophetic phenomenon in our own generation. The parents have indeed been returned to God by their children.
Elijah the Prophet is the harbinger who will herald the arrival of Moshiach, our righteous redeemer. It seems to me that he cannot be far away.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.