The Cup of Elijah

"Mother dear, where shall I put the chair for the prophet Elijah? I was helping my mother in the preparations for Passover. The task was not easy: the Passover Seder has the solemnity of a High Mass celebrated in a cathedral.

"Put the chair for Elijah near to the door so that he may enter and leave without being seen," was my mother's response, while a sad smile appeared on her face. This sadness was caused, no doubt, by the fact that in this family festival my father would be absent. He had died recently, and in his place my pious uncle would be at the head of the table.

With a deep sigh Mother put the beautiful bronze candlesticks in their proper places. I saw the elongated reflection of my face on their shiny surface and laughed. She then arranged the plates on the table, putting the masta in the center, covering it with a pretty cloth on which she had sewn a Star of David, with the Hebrew letters of the blessing, which is pronounced when the bread is broken. This artwork she had done when she was as yet unmarried. Then, with care, she divided the portions of bitter herbs. Knowing my dislike for these, she put on my plate the smallest possible amount.

"Israel has had too many bitter herbs, both inside and outside of Egypt," she said. "I think the rabbis might have spared us such a reminder. Do you hear those young Gentiles out in the street? They are our bitter herbs and we have more of them than we can digest."

There was indeed a danger that a mob might form that night because the Gentile community was greatly agitated, due to the supposed disappearance of a young girl. In spite of this, the Jews continued to pass hurriedly in front of our house, on their way to the synagogue to observe Maariv. They were hearing hurled at them "loving" expressions like: "How many Gentile children did you kill today?" "We will drive you out from here for Jerusalem where you ought to be."

Mother didn't want me to go to the evening service in the synagogue, because I was helping her prepare for the Passover celebration, the seder. She locked the doors and barred the windows. Then, she took out from a closet the silver cups from which our ancestors drank the Passover wine. With special care she unwrapped the largest and most beautiful cup, and, passing it to me she said, "Put it in the Prophet's place." This glorious chalice, reserved for Elijah, had never made contact with mortal lips.

THE STONE

"The prophet Elijah," my mother continued, speaking more to herself than to me, "is a guest we will need tonight more than ever." And, while she spoke, a stone hit the shutters and the impact shattered some of the windowpanes.

"Mother!" I cried with terror, "will the prophet really come?"

"Certainly," she answered. "I have never seen him, but he comes to all the Passover seders in order to miraculously protect His people, Israel. He is the messenger of the Lord, assuring us that as He guided us out of Egypt in the past, even so will; He lead us out of the galut (captivity) in order to take us to the land of promise. But I am afraid that we will have to eat many bitter herbs and drink the waters of Mara before we get there."

I didn't ask any more questions because I saw her anguish and that tears were about to flow. She then lit the candles with thanks to God who had so commanded. Afterward, she returned to her duties in the kitchen because the prayers and recitations of Psalms to follow had to be accompanied with a delicious soup, fish, and the roast lamb of the Passover festival.

MY UNCLE

Finally, my uncle arrived with his three sons. Almost without breath, they informed us of the mob that was growing, and of the stones which were being thrown against the synagogue windows. But, though apprehensive, my uncle put on the sacerdotal tunic, fastened the belt, and, with loud a voice, praised God for having redeemed His people from Egyptian slavery. While we all sang hymns and prayed, we were also praising God for the food He had provided for us on this occasion. Our invisible guest, the prophet Elijah, was protecting us, as we trusted. His cup was full; his chair was yet empty.

Clearly and triumphantly, Uncle sang the jubilous notes of the redemptive journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, while the rest of us timidly sang the "amens" and "hallelujahs." The mob, attracted by our service, gathered at the front of the house, increasing in size. Stones began to hit our shutters. Then, a crowbar was put to the hinges of the front door. But my uncle, as the High Priest of Jehovah, continued the ceremony. And we, the others present, were ever more frightened and sang our parts with fear.

THE PROPHET ELIJAH

At a certain point in the service, just before the wine is drunk the door is opened for the prophet Elijah. This was my task and I always felt its importance. Now, at the crucial moment, I was not even able to move. I was petrified with fear because the threatening multitude outside was going ahead with a fierce assault against the door. Then, in the moment of greatest danger, the miracle happened! "Greet you, good Christians!" A strong voice resounded. "Is this your way of celebrating Easter? Is it thus that your risen Master taught you to treat your neighbors?"

"Your reverence," we heard the multitude answer, "They slaughtered Anushka, the daughter of the stone mason, and in this minute they are drinking her blood from their silver chalices. We want to avenge her death!"

"You lie! It is a great lie! Horrible! Go to the Black Eagle Tavern and there you will find Anushka in the arms of the judge. And you, young brute, put that crowbar and go to the Black Eagle, and if it is not as I say, you can call your pastor a liar. And you, boys, stop throwing stones. Go back to your beds; give thanks to God, and ask that you don't end your days in prison. Vagabonds!"

Slowly, the multitude dispersed, and our fears slackened. My mother said to me then, "My son, open the door for the prophet Elijah!" Now, without fear, I ran to the door to obey her. A man of kind and gracious face entered and humbly advanced to the seder table acting as if he were fearful of doing something that might perturb us. We all looked at him with gratitude and half astonished.

"It's the pastor," Mother said, and her smile expressed a profound "welcome." "Sit down," she said, and he sat in the chair reserved for the Prophet. "Please be served," was Mother's invitation, and he accepted, lifting the Prophet's cup reverently, noting the Hebrew letters engraved upon it. His lips lightly touched the chalice, and then he placed it on the table.

We knew the pastor only as a grave and gentle man who passed in front of our house every day. He always greeted my mother when he passed and she always responded to his politeness. But they had never had a conversation.

My uncle didn't know what to do. He was grateful for the providential appearance of the pastor, but, I believe, he would rather be torn to pieces by the multitude than to see a Christian pastor interrupt the seder, sit in the chair consecrated for the Prophet, and drink from the holy chalice of Elijah that would be profaned by human lips. Signs of displeasure were mixed with gratitude on his face.

The pastor arose and asked pardon for having interrupted the service, saying, "I entered to tell you that the mob went away and that the girl whose disappearance created this situation has been found. I want to explain also that I did what I could to stop the uprising of the people, but was not successful, prior to the finding of the girl. You doubtless know that our religion does not teach hatred for the Jews."

Uncle Isaac, who had moved away from the pastor while he was speaking, answered, "But your reverence, you sat in the seat of the prophet Elijah, and you drank from his cup!"

THE CUP OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

"I drink from a cup like this one in every Easter celebration in my church, also," responded the pastor. "It is a cup consecrated by the lips of One greater than Elijah, One who taught that here should not exist hatred, nor war, among the children of God, and who gave his life to seal this truth."

The pastor left. Uncle Isaac returned to the hagaddah and read the final prayers. Happy, and sleepy, we responded with the last "amens" and "hallelujahs."

Before leaving for home, Uncle Isaac pointed to the cup of Elijah and said to Mother, "That wine is profaned, and the cup also. The lips of a Gentile touched them."

My mother rose in her refined female dignity and answered, "He had the right to drink from it. Was he not our prophet Elijah, and was it not our God Who sent him to save us?"

When my uncle had left, and I was in bed with my eyes almost closed in sleep, Mother came to me, bringing the cup of Elijah. "Drink from this cup, my child," she said, "because a living prophet drank from it."

And I drank from the cup of Elijah!

The above article has been adapted from an autobiographical book written by the esteemed university professor Edward Steiner.

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