Twenty eight years ago, I attended a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and set eyes on the Rebbe for the first time. The year that followed was truly a year of miracles, not the least of which was a visit by Elijah the Prophet.
On the first night of Passover my family and I, suffused with the wonder of our newly discovered Chassidism and aflame with inspiration, were seated around the seder table. I had never before experienced a seder with such spiritual delight and longing for redemption.
At the conclusion of the meal, the cup of Elijah was filled and my six year old son, candle in hand, was sent to open the front door, an old fashioned, ponderous wooden structure that was secured with a heavy iron latch. The door could be seen clearly from where I sat. However, before my son could take a step, the door unlatched and swung wide open. No one, or at least no one visible, was there. My son dropped the candle and ran to his mother. I hesitantly got up and went to the open doorway. The night was clear and there was not so much as a breeze.
With us that Passover was my parents' housekeeper, a simple, devout, G‑d fearing Catholic woman. She had come to us a few days before and stayed on to help with the children. During the seder, she stayed in her room, which was at the top of the stairs on the second floor. When she came down the next morning, she told us that during the night, she had heard the front door open and that she was suddenly and inexplicably overcome by an intense, awesome feeling of fear.
My second encounter with Elijah occurred on the following Passover. In the interim, we had moved from Boston to Montreal. As Passover approached and we immersed ourselves in the seemingly endless scrubbing, kashering, buying, and cooking, the exertion was sweetened by anticipations of the seder. Moreover, in light of the experience of the past year, it was not unreasonable to hope that Elijah would visit us, once again, in person.
The night of Passover arrived and the seder was conducted with joy and expectation. In due course, the cup of Elijah was filled and I sent my (now) seven year old and his four year old brother to open the front door. Our home in Montreal occupied the second story of a duplex, so that the front door was downstairs. I heard the children open the door, and then I heard screams of terror and the sound of their feet scrambling up the steps.
They burst into the dining room, faces white with fear, and they babbled and clung to me as if there very lives were threatened. Although their agitated jabbering was totally unintelligible, I wondered whether Elijah had not appeared this time in visible form. After all, it all made a great deal of sense. When Elijah had arrived last year, I was not yet worthy to behold his presence. Now, however, after a whole year of studying Tanya, and donning the additional "Rabeinu Tam" tefillin as per Chassidic custom, and after having been to the Rebbe a half a dozen times--perhaps I had reached the state of personal perfection necessary for a full revelation of Elijah.
I disengaged myself from my hysterical offspring and went downstairs to greet the prophet. What I encountered, however, was something else. There, at the entrance, was not the angelic figure of Elijah, but two massive dogs sitting on the front porch. I now understood the children's delirium. My kids would cross the street if they saw a miniature poodle leashed to its owner two blocks away. At a distance of one block they would begin to tremble and whimper. These two dogs were truly grotesque. They looked like those prehistoric carnivores whose fossilized remains populate the LaBrea tar pits. They placidly sat on my porch contemplating me with mild curiosity. I could not imagine what they were doing there.
I closed the door and dejectedly climbed the stairs. How was I to explain to my family that after six trips to the Rebbe, a year of learning Tanya, and putting on Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin in addition to the regular, requisite pair, I was worthy to be visited on Passover night by a couple of dogs? As it turned out, however, they weren't ordinary dogs.
On the following morning in shul, I was approached by one of the Yeshivah administrators who asked if I could take a guest for the midday meal. One of the supporters of the Yeshivah had a son who was studying law at an American school, and while there, he had become attracted to Torah learning and Jewish observance. He was now home, visiting his parents for Passover, and this administrator thought it would be a good idea if I spoke with him. I readily agreed.
We were introduced, and following the morning prayers, my children, my guest and I set out for home. As we reached my house, my guest became excited and exclaimed "I don't believe it! This can't be real".
I asked him what the excitement was about. My guest told me that he had come to Montreal the day before Passover. With him, were his two pet dogs. Just before the seder at his parents' home, the dogs escaped and ran out into the street. By the time their absence was noticed, they were nowhere to be seen, and my guest took to the streets to search for them. Hours later, he found them, very far from home, in a strange neighborhood, sitting on someone's front porch. That someone was me.
Providence had guided those monsters, his "pets", to my house. The experience left a deep impression on all of us and I felt particularly uplifted. If Elijah did not exactly come in person, at least he sent his dogs.
My guest and I became friends and in time, he embraced Torah completely, married, and raised a wonderful Chassidic family.
The third visit, which occurred the following year and has been repeated ever since, is somewhat less dramatic. Following grace after the meal, the cup of Elijah is filled, and my grandchildren go to the door, candles in hand. The door is opened, the appropriate verses are recited and that's it. Although it would be improper and incorrect to refer to it as a "no show", it is a very low key visit.
In truth, intuition not withstanding, this third visit is the most momentous of all, but one must know how to appreciate it. Last year, while spending Passover with my eldest son (the six- and seven-year old in the above accounts) he related a story about the Rebbe of Kotsk that puts this third visit in proper focus.
One year the Kotsker Rebbe promised his Chassidim that Elijah the Prophet would be revealed at his seder. On the first night of Passover, the Rebbe's dining room was crammed with Chassidim. The air was electric with anticipation and excitement. The seder progressed, the cup of Elijah was filled and the door opened. What happened next, left the Chassidim speechless. Nothing. Nothing happened. There was no one there.
The Chassidim were crushed. After all, the Rebbe had promised them a revelation of Elijah. The Kotsker, his face radiating holy joy, perceived their bitter disappointment and inquired as to what was the problem. They told him. " Fools!" he thundered. "Do you think that Elijah the Prophet comes in through the door? Elijah comes in through the heart."
The true light of redemption comes from within. Miracles provide inspiration and cause us to direct our attention and efforts to spiritual truths. The ultimate miracle, however, is not the abrogation of nature, but the transformation of the natural into the G‑dly.
Although the redemption from Egypt came from "without"--it was orchestrated and produced entirely by the Almighty, our Sages tell us the future and ultimate redemption will be the product of our own effort. Indeed, the whole point of liberating us from Egypt was to provide us with the opportunity to refine ourselves and the world around us to the extent that Divine Will which is the hidden source and root of all of existence becomes openly manifest.
This is what we achieve when we struggle to overcome the ego-centric inertia of worldly life. Every small, private, inner step on the path to spirituality and goodness is a step toward the Redemption. The Torah-study, good deeds, and character refinement with which we occupy themselves all year open the door of the heart to Elijah the Prophet and all that he represents.
When the cup of Elijah is filled this Passover and the front door is opened, don't concentrate on the doorway. If you peek into your heart, there's a very good chance that you will behold the holy prophet smiling back at you.