July 2011

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By Sy Schechtman

Ahab, king of the recently divided Northern Kingdom of Israel, had it just right when he greeted Elijah for the second time, after not heeding his initial warnings about Ahab’s idolatrous, heathenish ways. Elijah is “thou troubler of Israel”, steadfast in his condemnation of Ahab and his iniquitous ways, especially in his flagrant violation of the Jewish religious code by his marriage to Jezebel, a Canaanite woman who persuaded pliant and weak Ahab to establish the Phoenician worship on a grand scale and prosecute all supporters of Jehovah, the true God of the Jews. All the priests of the pagan god Baal were empowered and all remaining Hebrew supporters were threatened with death.

Elijah appears suddenly and most courageously, , denounces Ahab’s idolatry. “As the Lord God liveth , before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years but according to my word”. Warned by God after this bold outburst, he flees and hides and is fed miraculously by ravens and later by the widow of Zarephath, who while most weakened by famine in the drought Elijah predicted, is able to produce the needed food for her family and Elijah. And he, miraculously resuscitates her dying son, on the verge of starvation.

But Ahab is unrepentant. The famine Elijah predicted was well into its third year when Elijah returned and found the same Baal idol worship under Jezebel’s ardent protection. And the full support of the faithless Jew, King Ahab. Exasperated, and firmly in the Jewish God’s camp, Elijah challenges Ahab to an ultimate test, on Mount Carmel, for the next day, to decide who the true God was. Who the favored people really were. At Elijah’s suggestion two bullocks were chosen and each placed on a separate altar, one for Baal and one for the Jewish God, Jehovah. Whichever was consumed by fire would definitely show God’s preference. All day long the multitude of Baalim priests in the their gaudy priestly garb danced and chanted around their slain bullock to no avail. Then Elijah, dressed in somewhat ragged clothes and with wild, unkempt hair, approached the Jewish altar with his solitary assistant. “Lord god of Abraham, Isaac and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and I have done all these things at thy word.”….. and “the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” And the people, with one voice, proclaimed “the Lord, he is God”. All the priests of Baal were slain at Elijahs’ command. And Ahab, at Elijahs’suggestion, is urged to drink, since Elijah is forthrightly now praying for rain to end the drought that Elijah had requested three years ago to punish sinful Ahab. At first only a small cloud appears, gradually spreading its thirst quenching water over all of Israel in response to Elijah’s prayer. And God’s swift response. Momentary total triumph for the prophet. Indeed….the “hand of the Lord had come upon Elijah . He tied up his skirts and ran in front of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.” Ahab was in his horse driven chariot; Elijah was on foot, traversing about a sixteen mile triumphant jaunt—a very, very early Jewish marathoner!

However, Jezebel, a very furious, fanatic Baal worshipping zealot vowed vengeance. Hearing from her abject husband, Ahab, of the death of all her dancing priests at the hand of Elijah ……“Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them”….{the slaughtered priests}. From momentary elation Elijah becomes totally despairing and flees into the desert wilderness. For the first time the Bible depicts Elijah as weak and despairing, saying “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” But food is miraculously provided, in that bitter wilderness called. Horeb, (dry place) ---called in Exodus Mt.Sinai, where Moses revealed the Ten Commandments,---- invigorates Elijah again and he thrusts forward for another forty days until Mt. Horeb is reached, and the utter majesty and eternal enigma of God is revealed.

…..“And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the still small voice. …..(or soft murmuring sound).” Then Elijah heard the voice of the Lord giving him three commands which to our modern ears contain only moderately significant meaning, except for the last one---to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha proved a worthy replacement, doing many of the miracle wonder work of his mentor Elijah. Then, one day as the two of them were walking in the field “a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven. Elisha saw it, and he cried out”Oh , father, father! Israel’s chariots and horsemen”… When he could no longer see him, he grasped his garments and rent them in two.” Thus, technically, Elijah received an honor even Moses, unquestionably Israel’s greatest prophet did not attain. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, nor do we actually know his burial site. Elijah, indeed, superceded the utterly human mortal limit of physical death in his spectacular mortal demise. In effect he circumvented the physical limits of mortality.

And to this day the mystique of Elijah persists in Jewish theology, as we prepare a fifth cup of wine for the arrival the prophet Elijah at the annual family seder of Passover. These seders commemorate the release from the four hundred year slavery of ancient Jewry in the time of the Pharoahs of Egypt. At these yearly Passover family seders world wide Jewry still remembers the memory of Elijah as well as Moses as we gradually drink --- or merely sip!-- from four cups of wine—just before the special Passover meal is eaten. Then a door is opened and a fifth cup is poured in an adjoining room for the prophet Elijah, who somehow is still too busy to manifest his presence once again and drink from this most symbolic cup.

That Jews are still enhancing the spirituality of their eternal Passover commemoration seder with the unquenched cup for Elijah is convincing evidence of their longing for some sort of redemption and salvation from their generally dubious fate in the middle ages. (And indeed to this very day as we go to publication!) Indeed, Maimonides, in his famous thirteen principles of faith, states that every Jew must accept was the coming of the Messiah (item 12). And Elijah, that illustrious wonder working ancient prophet with his most intimate relationship with God and heaven has been always thought a most suitable candidate---but unfortunately most Jews do not believe in Maimonides last postulate (item 13) , the resurrection of the dead. However, Judaism, as have other faiths, had many hopeful but unfortunately “false” messiahs. The most prominent one being the “Turkish Messiah” Sabbatai Zevi, born in Smyrna in l626, a personable, charismatic young man whose fame was powerfully aided by the Cabalistic doctrines of Isaac Luria that heralded the year l648 as the redemption date by the Messiah of all pious Jewish souls. In 1665 Zevi returned to this native city and publicly announced himself as the Messiah, amid much public rejoicing. Although his claims were doubted by the more skeptical Jews his claims led to much exuberant rejoicing among the many downtrodden Jews who were experiencing increasing increasing poverty and anti-Semitic pogroms.

Cabalisitc doctrine, and Zevi welcomed the suffering as a necessary precursor to the Messiah’s coming; many sold their belongings for a pittance that they might join Sabbatai immediately and experience the Sabbath in Palestine in the immediate present after so much time spent in the golus (diaspora). Many throngs of people greeted this en route Jewish pilgrimage and on the London Stock exchange ten to one odds were given that the Jews would establish a kingdom of their own! But, alas, from here the Jewish messiah experience gradual disintegrates tragically. At first the Turkish officials treated Sabbatai cordially, as befits a visiting potentate, but soon his presence became an embarrassment. He and his wife were offered the choice of Islam or death. Suddenly his glorious pretensions evaporated and rather meekly he accepted the Moslem faith, he and his wife living thereafter as pensioners of the Sultan. A minority of Sabbatai’s followers stubbornly carried on in this forlorn path, but the most dismal result were the followers of Jacob Frank about 75 years later who elevated immorality to the level of a commandment and thus gained the Lord’s attention! Frank was excommunicated by the Jewish leaders and ultimately imprisoned.

And today we have only vibrant echoes of what so stirred many devout Jewish souls those many centuries ago. Not so much the Elijah hope and fantasy, or the false Messiahs---Sabatiah Zvia or Joseph Frank---but the real live drumbeat of marching Jewish day schoolers in most current urban Brooklyn singing “We want Moshiach (Messiah) now”! It is a small but growing movement in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, not far from where veteran Brooklyn denizens—like myself---once resided. Within walking distance of now vanished Ebbets Field, home of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers, now in the more modern décor of Los Angeles, but for many years previously the site of many stirring baseball confrontations between the reviled New York Giants and the Dodgers. Now both of these sports entities have defected to seductive California, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where besides Hollywood and a supposedly benign climate we have earthquakes, rock and mud slides, and annual very worrisome large forest fires. And the rivalry between the two teams now on the other extremity of our great land, only tepid at best.

Meanwhile, back in the old Crown Heights neighborhood of dear old Brooklyn, many ethnic minorities are flourishing, including a small group of transplanted Jews from the pale of settlement between Russia, Poland, and Hungary---Lubovitch Chabad Jews escaping just before the Nazi German Holocaust enveloped them. These Jews are one dynamic part of Chassidic Judaism, which is a dynastic orthodox faction of the Jewish religion, with a worthy son succeeding the current Rebbe on his death, In Lubovitch the situation is somewhat precarious at this time, for the last two leaders were childless. But the last one ---Menachim Mendel Schneerson---. left a legacy of marvelous works that upon his death led to the President at that time, Bill Clinton, issuing a posthumous gold Congressional Medal of Honor. “The Rabbi’s movement now has over 2,000 institutions; educational, social, all across the globe. And for this he deserves great commendation.” Indeed Lubavitch now has about 200,000 world wide members and an annual budget conjectured to be around one billion dollars annually. Since they do not have annual congregational dues as per usual conventional membership status, many devoted members simply tithe an annual dues payment based on income. This will not come close to funding the aforementioned billion dollar estimate, but Lubovitch evidently does not hesitate to gently play the secular guilt card among wealthy non observant Jews to very lucrative effect!

Therefore we have a young, determined band of schluchim(pl.), shaliach (sing) that the Rebbe has enticed to be missionaries for the retention and enhancement in body and soul of his existing and probably languishing Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). Sometimes in their eagerness they have even over reached in the so called “mitzvah tanks” where semitic looking males were approached and urged to put on tefillin, a somewhat awkward arm wrap around leather strip before one says the morning prayer. Once this happened in New York to my son Joel, and much irritated by the delay he claimed non Jewishness in self defense! (Today he is definitely in the Jewish fold, but not quite as intensely as my other Lubovitcher son Gordon!) There are about four thousand schluchim in Lubovitch, mostly young couples who will pursue this more energetic path toward a more positive, open manifestation of their Jewishishness, despite the timorous, more negative reaction of their more restrained fellow reform and conservative Jews, who were sometimes heard to mutter resignedly ---“oh!, oh!,oh!...here come those darn Black hats again…..akin to the despair heretofore manifested when negroes moved into a lily white neighborhood!

Menachem Schneerson succeeded his deceased father in law in l951 and lived for over 42 years as leader of Chabad Lubavich. He died with no living heirs, as did his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe. But the sect has thrived, as President Clinton’s praise noted above. Over 200,000 members, international recognition, and very adequate budget and many eager schluchim to fulfill its dynamic pro Jewish agenda. Perhaps it was only only natural that mega success would now be bruited about-----messiah talk. Indeed Schneerson perhaps augmented this on a personal level by starting rather late in his life, his famous Sunday morning dollar distributions in Crown Heights when he would greet personally and distribute individual dollar bills to hundreds of people waiting patiently on line. Schneerson never claimed to be the chosen Messiah, but only urged the necessity for the momentous occurrence now due to the seeming unrest, turmoil, and world change.

But the optimistic momentum generated by the fall of the restrictive Soviet communist wall dividing East and west Germany and the gradual implosion of atheist Soviet Russian power, and the seeming rout of the Arabs in the first Persian Gulf war, all placed more emphasis on the Rebbe’s putative messiah mantle. And when the Lubavitcher youngsters continued their Messiah chanting Schneirson at first ignored it, but then seemed to incrementally if somewhat reluctantly be accepting. A relevant secular optimistic evidence of that time was Francis Fukiyama’s influential book, “the End of History” which predicted that the last decade of the twentieth century and well beyond in next century would see some sort of western style democracy and voting rights for most of humanity.

Since that time Fukayama has spent time amending and backtracking from that massive optimistic prediction; and the meshikistn, .with the Rebbe as the Messiah, are now still quietly waiting, now much against the tide of almost all of past Jewish history--- the resurrection of the dead. But Lubavitch as it is now constituted, led by a consortium with Yehuda Krinsky at the head constantly referring to Schneerson’s abundant writings, dictates, and spiritual musings with the aid of the Tanya, their holy supplement to the Torah and Talmud, written in 1791 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman founder of Chabad Hasidism. And it is many hundreds of years before that, at the inception of the Passover seders and their story of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery, and Elijah’s cup is still untouched.

More or less the normative Jewish Messiah tradition is that the Messiah would come only when the people’s behavior merited his holy presence, and that Elijah, if not the actual Messiah, would announce His (or Her) coming arrival because of the fruition of their praise worthy behavior. And in the relatively slow historic timeless pace of the World To Come we can already visualize both Schneerson and Elijah sipping from that fifth wine cup. Planning some sort of well deserved renascence for the Jewish people.