The Role of Eliyahu at the Bris
by Yitzchak Etshalom
The presence of Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet - see I Kings
17:1 - II Kings 2:22) at the B'rit is well-known; the baby is
circumcised while being held on "Kissei shel Eliyahu" - Eliyahu's
chair. Along with the B'rit, there is one perennial occasion
where Eliyahu's presence is felt - at the Seder. It would seem,
then, that Eliyahu is our connection with the past - the
intergenerational link who is symbolically invited to those
occasions where we link our lives with those of our ancestors.
A closer look at our calendar and life-cycle events gives us a
different picture - Eliyahu's name is not invoked at the other
"life-cycle simchah" - a wedding. Nor is his presence symbolized
in our celebration of the three festivals (Pesach (aside from
Seder eve) Shavuot and Sukkot). Even as we invite the Uzhpizin
into the Sukkah, Eliyahu is left off of the guest list. What is
the rationale behind our interest in sharing important occasions
- but selectively - with the Giladite prophet?
Eliyahu's most impactful moment (I Kings 18) took place atop
Mount Carmel, when he not only challenged 850 of Ah'av and
Izevel's idolatrous prophets - demonstrating the omnipotence and
utter rulership of haKadosh Barukh Hu - but, more significantly,
he convinced the people that indeed "YHVH is THE God, YHVH is THE
God". The same syncretistic Israelites who were burning the
candle at both ends - worshipping the local Canaanite gods (just
in case!) along with Hashem - repudiated their dual allegiance in
the clearest of voices. Eliyahu had won the hearts of the people
back to the One True God - for a while.
In the next chapter, we read of Eliyahu's flight to Horev (=
Sinai), on account of his being a wanted man. A careful reading
implies that not only was he wanted by the royal house, but that
the people had also returned to their Ba'al worship and were out
to kill him. (Read I Kings 19:10, 14 and especially 18). What
had happened here? What of the vocal and unswerving affirmation
of the people at Carmel?
Eliyahu ran to Sinai/Horev and he expected to find God in the
fire, in the earthquake and in the great wind...but God was
finally found in the "still, small voice." What is the lesson
here? and what is the connection - if any - between this lesson
and the stand at Carmel?
Our lives are made up of day-to-day living - and of "moments".
We all experience situations which drive our emotional meters to
the limit, whether the awe we feel when we first visit the Grand
Canyon, the terror we experience in the split-second before a
narrowly averted accident, or the amazement when we hold our son
or daughter in our hands for the first time.
Judaism is also built upon a combination of diligent, constant
and consistent growth - and "moments". When God passed through
Egypt, slaying the first-born of the Egyptians and concurrently
sanctifying the first-born of the B'nai Yisra'el - that was a
"moment". When we stood at Sinai "as one person with one heart"
and accepted God's rule and His Torah - that was a "moment".
On the other hand, we have a calendar replete with revisitations
to familiar places - three times a year, we bring ourselves back
to Yerushalayim. Every week, we reexperience the majesty of
creation. Every day, we face Yerushalayim three times and pour
our hearts out to God in T'fillah. The Torah we study, much as it
should be "considered new to us every day as if we had just
received it at Sinai", demands a constant and diligent effort
which is only fully realized and optimized through consistent
commitment to rigorous study.
To wit - Jewish days, weeks and years are made up of steps, each
building upon each other, each leading us to greater personal,
communal and national heights of holiness. "Moments" are not
mandated - they are experienced by those sensitive enough to
recognize their mystery.
There is one exception to this rule - the night of the Seder.
Unlike other holy days (including the rest of Pesach - "Hag
haMatzot"), Seder night is not a recollection or even a
reenactment - it is a total reexperience. We are transported
from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and even Yerushalayim to Egypt,
gathered in homes with neighbors and friends, waiting for the
moment when all will be irreversibly changed; when Egyptian and
Hebrew are no longer cut of the same cloth, when holy and profane
become defined and when the same holiness which destroys evil
sanctifies the worthy (see Malakhi 3:19-20). At the height of
this expectation, when we not only reexperience the greatness of
Goshen, but we also pre-experience the majesty of Mashiach, we
welcome Eliyahu - the "master of the moment."
Eliyahu's stand at Mt. Carmel and his defiance of King Ah'av and
Queen Izevel were epic events, heroic efforts which moved all
assembled and impacted upon them in the most fundamental fashion,
reshaping and reordering their priorities and values. However -
the "moment" is not an end in and of itself - it is an
opportunity to affect profound personal and communal change on a
daily basis. That change, however, can only be accomplished
through the diligent, quiet mode of "Mesorah" - transmission of
teaching. Eliyahu shocked the people into seeing the truth - but
there was no follow-up and, soon after, they "sought to destroy
me." It is no wonder that Eliyahu fled to Sinai. Sinai, unlike
the "other" mountain in our daily conciousness - Tziyyon - is a
place of "moment". It was at Sinai that we experienced thunder
and lightning and heard God's Voice as we entered the national
B'rit. Sinai, however, never retained its sanctity - it was only
holy for the duration of the "moment". It was only in the Ohel
Mo'ed and in the Mishkan (Sanctuary) that ongoing sanctity was to
Eliyahu fled to Sinai - and encountered several potential
"moments" - a fire, an earthquake and a mighty wind. This was
where he expected to find God - in the "moment". But God was not
found in the "moment"; He was found in the ongoing dialogue, in
the Mesorah from parents to children, in the "still small voice."
The "moment" is only of value if it inspires us to the real work
of personal growth and change. (see Ramban, end of Parashat Bo,
where he explains that the purpose of any miracle is to
demonstrate that God's hand is to be found everywhere - not just
in the miracle).
Eliyahu does not belong to the daily experience nor does he fit
in to the cycle of holidays - as each of them is a piece of an
ongoing relationship with God, expressed through historical,
spiritual and intellectual components. In the same way, Eliyahu
is not welcome at weddings. When we wed, we are not experiencing
a "moment" per se - we are not shocked (hopefully!) to find
ourselves under the Huppah with our mate. A wedding is a
commitment to ongoing growth, both as individuals and as a
couple. That is why wedding liturgy is always associated with
Tziyyon and Yerushalayim (see Yirmiyah [Jeremiah] 33:10-11); just
as the wedded couple is taking the first steps of day-to-day
building, so is our relationship with Yerushalayim built upon
thrice-yearly pilgrimages and thrice-daily T'fillot. Unlike
Sinai, the holiness of Tziyyon is eternal.
A B'rit, on the other hand, is a "moment" par excellence. The
child is being transformed before our very eyes, from an Arel
into a Mahul, from an outsider to a member of the covenantal
community. This "moment" brings us back to Sinai, where we
entered our national B'rit. Just as there is no mention of Sinai
in the Sheva B'rakhot, there is no explicit mention of
Yerushalayim in those special blessings associated with a B'rit -
it is a purely Sinaitic experience. (See Mordechai, Shabbat Ch.
19 where he cites the custom of Maharm of Rothenburg who would
stand up for K'riat haTorah and at a B'rit. The Rav zt"l
explains that K'riat haTorah is a reenactment of Kabbalat haTorah
at Sinai and so we stand.)
We invite Eliyahu to the B'rit because he is the man of Sinai,
the man of the "moment". But we recognize that the "moment" is
fleeting and can turn on us if we do not commit ourselves to the
daily growth of Talmud Torah - to listening to the "still, small
voice" of Massoret Avot.
Yoseph Tzvi is named for several people in our families whose
memories will always be a blessing - and for Maran, R. Yoseph Dov
haLevi Soloveitchik, zt"l. Thanks to Rabbis Baruch Lanner and
Elazar Muskin for sharing gleanings of the Rav's Torah which
provided the seeds for the above presentation.