Hope, Not Fear at Passover: The Blessings of an Open Door

Person reading at Passover meal
Person reading at Passover meal

During the Passover Seder many have the tradition to rise from the table and open the door for the Prophet Elijah to come, perhaps even to join us and drink a little wine from the cup with his name on it. In some houses the cup sits still, in others it is filled by the participants, and in others there might even be a little misdirection so that suddenly some wine disappears from the cup! Still, even though this moment has become one of the most recognized parts of the Passover celebration, it is actually a ritual that has been transformed over the centuries.

While Elijah has been associated with being a herald of the Messiah since biblical times, it took many centuries before the custom developed associating him with both the cup and the open door. The cup may have started as a way of making sure not to spill any of the mandatory four cups, or possibly as a way to set a place for a guest at the table. The door on the other hand may call back to the doorposts marked with lamb's blood to signal the angel of death to "pass over" the Israelite houses. Sometime before the 1200s the tradition became to open the door and call upon G*d to "pour out wrath upon our the nations," a selection from Psalm 79 expressing both fear and anger borne of the Crusades and other assaults carried out against Jews by our neighbors.
Today, however, especially in this country, our neighbors are more likely to be sitting with us at our table than to be the objects of intimidation or malice. The lives of Jews and non-Jews are intertwined, possibly in the same household. And while the recitation of "Pour out Thy wrath" (Psalm 79) is still on the books, in most homes that celebrate the Seder the moment of opening the door is more about welcoming Elijah in song and celebration. If the reading is not left out altogether it may be replaced or supplemented by words emphasizing bringing the peoples of the world together in love and peace. In our house, we have the custom of reading Psalm 80 that instead echoes the theme of wine by describing how G*d "plucked" Israel out of Egypt like "a vine" and replanted her in the soil of the Promised Land.
This year's celebration, however, brings with it an extra reminder of how much we should not take for granted the blessing of being able to open our door in hope and not fear. This Passover marks not only the 3,326nd year since the Exodus from Egypt, but also marks 70 years since the uprising of armed Jewish resistance against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. The uprising was doomed to fail, but the Jewish fighters led by Mordechai Anielowicz were able to strike back against the German onslaught for a number of days, causing a relatively a small number of casualties but leaving an indelible mark of resistance before succumbing.

That Passover there was no opportunity to open the door, for Elijah or otherwise, but incredibly there was a Seder, recited from memory in a bunker. Yitzchak Milchberg, known as the Bull, had escaped the ghetto but snuck back in to be with his uncle for that night different from all other nights. Other Jews in the bunker rejected outright the propriety of singing hymns of salvation from Egypt as the Nazi murderers closed in to finish them off. But his uncle insisted, especially to his nephew: "You may die, but if you die, you'll die as a Jew," "If we live, we live as Jews. If you live, you'll tell your children and grandchildren about this." The others indeed joined in, singing louder even as they heard the reports of the automatic fire, and the Bull would survive the ghetto's liquidation and live to tell the story. We remember what he and his heroic compatriots did a couple of weeks after Seder night on the day whose full name is Yom HaZikaron LeShoah uLeGevurah -- Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and of the Heroism.

Our own celebrations of Passover teach us that we live neither in the world of miraculous salvation and Divine protection experienced in Egypt nor in the world stripped of all hope like that experienced by those huddled in the Ghetto bunkers. When we open the door at our Seder, we encounter the echoes across multiple Jewish existences. We hearken to the blood on the first doorpost as well as the blood spilled in our darkest times. We celebrate the return to the Land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty and life in America side by side with our neighbors. And we look past our doorway with anticipation that we might catch a glimpse of Elijah the Prophet, the one that will usher in an age of true peace and freedom throughout the world.

May this season be full of joy and meaning and bring with with it the blessings of an Open Door.