March 23, 2002
Shabbat Hagadol is traditionally associated with the beginning of the final stage of the redemption from Egypt. On this day, each Israelite family selected a lamb for its Passover offering. The final verses of the haftarah deal the ultimate redemption at the end of days. According to tradition, this final redemption will occur during Passover. What will this redemption entail? The end of the haftarah gives us a clue as to what the prophet expected: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile fathers with sons and sons with their fathers, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:22-3 – NJPS translation)
Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish exegete, captures the pshat or simple meaning of these verses when he says that Elijah’s task will be to bring everyone, both fathers and sons, to the service of God. Rashi modifies this interpretation when he says both parents and children will lovingly bring each other back to the service of God. Redemption for these scholars entails a return to intimacy with God.
These verses also play a significant role in the following mishnah. Rabbi Yehudah said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher and his teacher heard it from his teacher as a halachah given to Moshe from Sinai, that Elijah will not come to pronounce that which is ritually pure or ritually impure, to send away or to bring near. Rather he will come to send away those brought close by force and to bring close those who were distanced by force…. Rabbi Yehudah says: To draw closer but not to distance. Rabbi Shimon says: To settle disputes among sages, The sages say: Elijah’s purpose is not to bring close nor to distance, rather to make peace in the world, for it is said: ‘Behold I will send to you Elijah the prophet… and he will turn the heart of the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 3:23-24) [adapted from the Mishneh Eduyot 8:7)
Malachi’s prophecy became a springboard for the redemptive visions of each of the rabbis mentioned in this mishnah. Rabbi Avraham ben David (Ravad), the 12th century Provencal Talmudist, notes that both Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehudah derive Eliyah’s role in restoring proper family status from the words “father to children etc.” Rabbi Shimon interprets this phrase to refer not to “fathers and sons” literally but to “teachers and students”. Redemption for Rabbi Shimon entails the resolution of disputes among the sages. The Sages themselves, understood .the words “fathers and sons” to refer to bringing peace to humankind.
The rabbis of this mishnah have transformed Elijah’s role in the final redemption from an exclusively religious role into a message of social reform. They seem to be saying that the final Passover cannot be achieved until social justice and peace are a relevant element of the return to God.