Elijah’s Cup

The Rabbi Bel Shem Tov joyfully celebrated Passover every year with his disciples. They faithfully observed the Seder tradition of leaving a cup for the prophet Elijah at the table and opening the door for him towards the end of the meal. One year, when it came close to time for the Passover celebrations, one of the Rabbi’s disciples came to him and lamented:

“Every year, we celebrate Pesach together and every year we leave a cup for Elijah and every year we open the door for him towards the end of the meal. Yet, year after year, he fails to show. Why does the ancient prophet spurn us so?” 

Rabbi gave this question some thought before responding. 

“Let me tell you what you must do,” he said, “On the first night of Passover, pack up a cart with food, wine, matzos, and gifts for children. Go to the next village over. There is a small house in the poorest part of town with a green painted bench outside. Go into this home and celebrate Passover with the family inside. Elijah is sure to show up there.”

When the time came, the disciple did as the Rabbi had instructed. He showed up to the house with his cart. He was greeted warmly and invited inside. The kids loved their gifts and they all celebrated together. The disciple had a marvelous time that night but the prophet Elijah never showed up, even when they opened the door for him. His cup remained at its place untouched. The disciple came home dejected.

“I thought for sure Elijah would show up,” the Rabbi said, “He must have been delayed or you must have been late and missed him. I’m sure if you go even earlier next year, you will see him.”

The disciple awaited with anticipation all year until the holiday finally came back around. Then he did as he was instructed the year before. He loaded a cart with food, wine, matzos, and gifts for the kids, and he went to the instructed house, even earlier than the previous year. As he was wheeling his cart past the green painted bench to the door of the small house, he over heard a conversation. 

“What are we going to do?” the wife was asking her husband, “We don’t have anything to celebrate with this year. No food. No gifts. Nothing.”

“Do not worry,” he reassured her, “Don’t you remember how last year we had nothing to celebrate with and the prophet Elijah himself showed up with everything we needed for the meal? God provided for us last year and He will provide again this year.”

The disciple wiped several tears from his eyes, smiled, and walked through the door to take his place at the table and drink from his cup.

It is traditionally believed that Elijah will show up to mark the beginning of the Messianic age, bringing redemption to the people of Israel. For this reason, the Elijah Cup is always present at a Passover Seder as a symbol of hope and expectation. “Be the change you want to see.” is the central message of this beautiful Hasidic parable. Each of us can bring a little redemption to this Earth by showing kindness to those in need. May we who walk in the way of Jesus show warmth and hospitality to our brothers and sisters who celebrate Passover this week. Our traditions this week are very different but we are similarly brought to a table in the name of love. We similarly wait for a promise to be fulfilled. Let us not forget that in the meantime we can be instruments of redemption by showing kindness to our neighbors.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

When Night is Over…

A Rabbi once asked his disciples, “How do you know when night is over and dawn has come?”

“Night is over and dawn has come,” said one of the disciples, “when there is enough light that you can look out on a hillside, see an animal, and distinguish whether it is a sheep or a dog.”

“No,” said the Rabbi.

Another of the disciples decided to give the answer a try. “Night is over and dawn has come,” he said, “when there is enough light that you can look out into the yard, see a tree, and distinguish whether it is a fig tree or an olive tree.”

“No,” said the Rabbi again.

So the disciples asked the Rabbi to tell them the answer to the question. The Rabbi smiled and said,  “When you have enough light within you that you can look at a stranger and see a brother, then the night is finally over and dawn has come.”

“Sorrow may last for a night,” declares the Psalmist, “but joy comes in the morning.” What will that morning look like? How will we know it is upon us? This parable teaches us the simple truth that when we begin to see the world through the eyes of grace and compassion, morning is near. We see each other as through a glass darkly. We despise the faults in others that we excuse in ourselves. We do our best to not even see a stranger in need. But When we finally learn to see the image of God in others, we are walking in the light of Jesus. Night is finally behind us and dawn has come.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Nathan’s Parable

After King David had slept with Uriah the Hittite’s wife, Bathsheba, and impregnated her, he arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he could take Bathsheba as his own. This angered God greatly. So He sent the prophet Nathan to confront the King.

Nathan feared for his life. What if the King decided to kill Nathan right then and there to keep the rumor of his sin from spreading? It was not uncommon for powerful men to kill those that brought them terrible news. Still, God had sent Nathan to rebuke King David and he resolved to be faithful to his call. Nathan devised a creative way to confront the King. While David was sitting on his throne, judging the people and arbitrating their disputes, Nathan came forward and brought him a case:

“O King, in one of your towns lives two men. One of those men is quite wealthy and the other is vey poor. The wealthy was blessed with hundreds of sheep and cattle but the poor man had nothing but a little lamb he bought at the market place. The poor man loved this lamb. It grew up in his house alongside his children. He fed it with food and drink from his very own table. Often times the little lamb even slept in his arms.

O King, one day a traveler came to this town and, as it is custom, the rich man invited him in and offered him a meal. Only, the rich man refused to slaughter any of his own sheep for the meal. Instead, he took the little lamb belonging to the poor man, without his knowledge or consent, and slaughtered it to feed to traveler.”

King David was enraged when he heard this. 

“As surely as the LORD lives, this man must die! Bring him to me and he will be forced to pay for that lamb four times over for doing such a cruel and merciless thing!”

Then Nathan stood up straight and his eyes flashed as with the fire of God. He pointed at King David and said, “You are the man!” 

Nathan then told the shocked King how he had offended God and he laid out the severe consequences that would result. Rather than getting angry or defensive, David simply bowed his head and said, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

It is a difficult thing to speak the truth to power. So difficult that many stomach injustice rather than standing up for what is right. This story from the Hebrew Bible demonstrates the profound effect a little bravery can have. Nathan used the power of story to tug at the heart of his King so that he could see the error of his ways. Jesus, too used story to show the powerful their folly. He also challenged them directly. Disciples walking in the way of Jesus have a responsibility to stand up to the powerful when they wield it to hurt others. Sometimes this means being straight forward. Other times it may take a more creative approach. Through art, we can hold a mirror up to the face of the powerful and let them see just who they are and what they are doing. As Hamlet says: “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Way to Paradise

There was once a man who had grown very discontented with his life. It seemed to him that nothing was what he once hoped it would be. He loathed his tiny little village filled with rude and nosy neighbors where nothing ever happened.  His children were loud and unruly, making his tiny shack of a house unbearable to live in. What’s more, his wife’s beauty had faded and she seemed to him less kind than when they first met.

“There must be something more than all of this,” he thought to himself. Then he remembered a place he had heard of as a child: the beautiful garden of Paradise. There, it was said, everything was perfect and everyone was happy all the days of their lives. The more the man thought about this strange and beautiful place, the more his heart longed to go there. So one morning he made a visit to the local Rabbi, knocking on his door.

“Rabbi,” he said, when the kindly man finally appeared in the door frame, “Can you tell me the way to Paradise?”

The Rabbi scratched his chin, “Normally, I would tell you that no one knows the way to Paradise and that would be true enough for Eden’s doors were closed to the world before maps were made and anyone who has managed to find there way there has stayed and not returned. But you look determined so I’ll tell you what I do know. It’s only hearsay and rumor, mind you…”

“Please!” said the man, “I must know. Anything you could tell me…”

“I have heard that it is a 7 day journey north. You must start on the first day of the week and you will arrive on the Sabbath. That’s all I know. Anyone I’ve sent that way has yet to come back…”

The man was overjoyed to have received such specific instructions. He thanked the Rabbi and began making his preparations to leave on the first day of the week. When the day came, he was off. He had a staff and enough food in his pack for seven days. He had no compass but once he had fixed himself going north, he simply walked in a straight line. Every night he would leave his shoes pointed in the direction he had been walking. Then, in the morning, he would put his shoes on and continue walking in that direction.

Midweek, when the man went to sleep, he pointed his shoes to the north as he had done the nights before. That night, a trickster happened by. He saw the man lying by the side of the road with his shoes pointed North and smiled a big mischievous smile. Chuckling to himself, he crept up to where the man was sleeping, and turned his shoes around so that they now pointed south. Then the trickster disappeared into the night like a wink from God.

When morning came,  the man put on his shoes and continued on his journey. As he progressed, he began to notice that it all seemed familiar to him. Had he visited the place in a dream? Was he in touch with his ancestral memories? As the days progressed, he was filled more with a sense of awe and wonder. Finally, on the morning of the Sabbath, he reached the village where he had started. But as its gates glowed in the morning light, he saw it as if for the first time.

“This is it!” he thought, “The gates of Paradise! O it’s beautiful!”

The man walked in and the ground glittered in the sunrise as if the streets were made of gold and he was warmed to see all the heavenly buildings and all the beautiful fruit trees. He marveled at the City of God, alive and bustling with the activity of the saints. Then he came to a house that deep inside he somehow knew was meant for him. There were tears in his eyes as he walked through the door and saw little cherubs laughing and dancing and singing all through the home, and he broke down sobbing when he walked into the bedroom and there sat the most loving and most beautiful angel he had ever seen. The man saw that everything was perfect and he was happy all the days of his life.

I thought a trickster story would be appropriate for April Fool’s day and this Jewish folktale is absolutely my favorite trickster story. There is an old Zen Buddhist saying that one looking for enlightenment is “like a man riding around on an ox, looking for an ox to ride on.” In other words, what you need to achieve inner peace and tranquility, you already have somewhere inside of you. You need not go looking for it. As disciples, we are not called to see the Kingdom of God merely as some distant utopia that can never be reached this side of the veil, but to realize all the ways God’s Kingdom is already here in our midst. We find heaven when we search within and discover the grace it takes to see the world with God’s eyes: full of His glory and bursting with a billion shades of light. Once we learn to see God’s Kingdom around us and dedicate ourselves to making that vision a reality then, at long last, our shoes will be pointed in the right direction.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Standing on One Foot

During the period of the second temple, there was a gentile man who decided to devote himself to becoming a Jew. He had heard that the two greatest teachers of Judaism living in Jerusalem were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The man was unsure of which Rabbi to study under so he devised a test to choose his teacher.

First, the man knocked on the door of Rabbi Shammai. When Shammai came to the door, the man said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Shammai replied, “What a ridiculous request! Look at all my students studying inside! They have devoted their entire lives to reading Torah and you propose to learn it in mere seconds? Begone!”

So the man continued on to Rabbi Hillel’s house and knocked on the door. When Hillel opened the door, the man again said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Hillel thought for a second, then said, “Alright.” As the man stood on his one foot, Hillel spoke these words: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This sums up the entire Torah and the rest is just commentary.”

When the man put his other foot back down, he entered Hillel’s home and became one of his most devoted disciples.

Most of the world’s religions have some version of the “golden rule” and yet the world continues to be rife with conflict. For Christians, loving God and loving neighbor ought to be the twin poles that keep us oriented and yet we too often fail at the latter out of our zeal for the former. Loving others is the essence of loving God. Doing good is the essence of serving God. The Torah (and indeed the Christian scriptures) are summed up in the call to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” The rest, as Rabbi Hillel reminds us, is just commentary.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

King Solomon’s Judgement

King Solomon was famous the world over for his wisdom. It was a gift that God had granted him to rule fairly and justly and to make good decisions on behalf of Israel. When he sat as judge over the people, they were confident that his rulings would be wise and compassionate. One day two prostitutes approached Solomon for a ruling. They had a dispute over a baby. The one who approached Solomon first explained:

“O wise King, judge between me and this woman I live with. We both gave birth to a baby boy in the same house, three days apart from each other. This woman’s baby boy died last night because she rolled over on top of him and he was smothered. At midnight, when she awoke and realized what she had done, she got up and switched our sons. She put the dead child next to me and took my son and placed it next to her. When I awoke, I was horrified to find the dead boy sleeping at my breast but once I looked at the child in the morning light, I saw that it was not mine but this woman’s. O King, we live just the two of us in that house so no one can judge between us.”

“Liar!” Shouted the other woman, “You are so stricken with grief over the death of your own son that you are trying to steal mine. Tell our King the truth about what you have done!”

And so the two women argued back and forth about who was the true mother of the living child. King Solomon finally silenced the two women and issued his verdict: “Both of you claim to be this child’s mother and yet, because you live alone and there are no witnesses, it is impossible for me to render a verdict.”

The king then called for a sword to be brought to him. “Because I cannot judge between the two of you, the only fair thing left to do is to cut the child in two and give each of you half.” Then he laid the infant on a table before him.

“No!”, screamed one of the women, “I relent! Give my son to this other woman! It is better that he should be alive and with her than to die on that table!”

The other woman said, “O King your judgement is just. The child shall be neither of ours. Continue.”

Just then, Solomon laid down the sword and picked up the child, cradling him in his arms and soothing him. He handed the baby to the first woman who had relented. “Here, boy, is your mother.” All Israel heard of King Solomon’s ruling and they were amazed at the wisdom of God that was within him.

Though this version of the “Two Mothers” parable (found in 1 Kings 3) is most familiar to Western readers, a version of it exists in many cultures throughout the world. In the Indian version, the wise ruler commands the two mothers to each take the baby by an arm and have a tug of war over a line. In the Chinese version, the mothers are told to compete to pull the child out of a chalk circle. In every version, it is the mother who relents and refuses to participate in the barbaric ritual that is determined to be the true mother. Whether these versions are all retellings of an original historical judgement by King Solomon, or whether the writer of the book of Kings placed this popular story in his history to demonstrate Godly wisdom, is really beside the point. Either way, this parable teaches a profound lesson about the true nature of parenthood. True parentage, according to the wisdom of this story, is not simply biological, it is rooted in compassion and concern for a child’s welfare. Anyone who would split a baby to make a point is not a true parent. As disciples, we can find deeper meaning in this parable about the true nature of leadership. I’ve known, in my own life, pastors who were willing to split a church in two rather than admit their failings. I’ve seen lay people purposefully divide closely knit small groups because they didn’t get their way. This kind of behavior is not spiritual leadership. A disciple walking in the way of Jesus would rather be split in two than to see or be the cause of division in the church. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Where is Paradise?

A man was fast asleep when he was awakened by the soft heavenly glow of the Angel Gabriel. After the man was convinced that he was truly awake and not dreaming, Gabriel said to him: “I have come to you from the Lord of Hosts! What would you ask of Him? Inquire anything and you shall know!”

The man gave this a moment’s thought and then said, “All my life I’ve wanted to know the location of Paradise so that I may go there someday.”

The Angel took the man by the hand and they flew out the window, zig zagging around stars until finally landing outside in a modest looking garden. “Is this paradise?” the man asked.

Gabriel took the man by the hand and lead him to a small house and brought him inside. There they saw a few old men drinking coffee and studying the scriptures. “This,” said Gabriel, “is Paradise!” The man looked around confused.

Gabriel smiled. “I know why you are puzzled… see, you were under the impression that the saints are in Paradise while all this time Paradise has been in the Saints.”

This old Jewish legend teaches something very profound. While we do believe in the hope of Resurrection as Christians, we must not lose sight of the fact that eternal life begins in the here and now. Whenever we gather with one another to search scripture and pray, we are creating a little piece of paradise in our hearts where God can begin to dwell. A far better teacher than I once said “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.” God calls us into loving community where the most ordinary of tasks, through his grace, is transformed into heavenly light.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…