Rabbi Micah Citrin
April 10, 2015
Nothing looks more beautiful, festive, and full, than the seder table. Flowers in the vase, candles, the seder plate containing the symbols that remind us of our freedom, and place settings that will invite all the guests – family and friends, young and old to participate. There will be four cups of wine, courses of gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, and brisket, songs, stories, and laughter. Amid this image of fullness, one symbol stands apart in silence and loneliness. Elijah’s cup brims with wine keeping a quiet vigil on the table. This solitary sentry keeps watch over the proceedings. Its contents will not be imbibed, nor will it be refilled like the other cups of wine. Elijah’s cup waits for the guest who never really arrives.
I like to watch Elijah’s cup and how it remains steady and unchanging throughout the commotion of the seder. I anticipate the moment that we turn our attention to the promise of Elijah, the hope for a better future when his return will usher in a more peaceful world. I can feel my heart beat faster as the children go to open the door, my breath stops for a moment, as each year I wonder if he will truly be present. What will the open door reveal?
Our voices rise around the seder table as we sing of Elijah the Prophet, Eliyahu zachur la-tov, Elijah who will be remembered for good. In the absence that resides beyond the open door, we are powerfully aware of Elijah’s presence of spirit. In the full cup that will not be emptied, we remember what we long for.
I think about Elijah in this moment of Yizkor. At this season, just as we recall Elijah for a blessing, we remember our loved ones for a blessing. Just as Elijah’s absence is palpable, we so miss the physical presence of our departed loved ones. We know they are at our seder in spirit. Elijah’s cup stands as a silent monument calling our attention to the quiet that occupies the place where a loved one once sat. Once again, the festival season recalls the holidays that we celebrated with loved ones, traditions we shared, moments we wish to cherish.
Elijah’s image offers us consolation in the ache of missing our departed. In Jewish tradition, Elijah never dies, but ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot until the day that the world is ready for his return. While this is merely legend, it suggests a promise of things that are eternal. Having lived, the legacy of our loved ones lives on in us. Having lived, our loved ones find new life in the power of recollection; the blessing of their existence renewed in the perspective of our memories. Like Elijah, our loved ones return. They are still with us around the seder table; the echoes of their voices, the resonance of stories they told.
So now, before the festival of Passover comes to an end, we open the door once more, we gather the deceased into our hearts. The biblical euphemism for death is being “gathered to one’s kin.” When the Israelites left Egypt, they literally did this with the remains of their ancestor, Joseph. Generations before the Exodus the Children of Israel promised to bring his bones into the Promised Land. The Children of Israel gathered Joseph unto themselves, and marched out of Egypt.
Some here this morning experience Yizkor in the midst of a recent death and a year of mourning. Others are more practiced at the custom, still remembering the sadness of loss experienced years ago. All of us keep a promise with our departed, gathering them to us as we march forward in our lives. We are not alone. They are not alone.
In Yehuda Amichai’s title poem, “Open Closed Open” in the last collection of poetry before his death, the poet offers following insight:
“Open, closed, open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die everything is open again. Open, closed, open. That’s all we are.”
Now we open the door to memory, we welcome the tidings that our remembrance brings. We embrace the possibility to reconnect, to reminisce, to defy the closed limits of our lives, and open a moment of eternity. This is Elijah’s promise of redemption, that light overcomes darkness, hope rises over despair, and that love is stronger than death.
 Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Block and Chana Kronfeld. Harcourt Inc, New York, 2000. p.6.