By Eugen Schoenfeld
The table was set for the seder. My mother’s gleaming, white, embroidered linen tablecloth covered the table. Here and there were faint signs of past spilled wine that gave the cloth some character. After all, it had been used for many years.
On top of that was Mother’s handicraft: a large, white, beautifully designed lace overlay that took her many years to complete. The bright white of the table coverings was warmed by the glow of the holiday candles in Mother’s treasured pure-silver Shabbat candelabras, which were always polished. On the table was a large kearah (a treasured seder plate) with the Passover symbols properly displayed.
It was now late in the evening. We had performed the commandment of telling the tale. The stories about Egyptian slavery and our redemption had been read, and my father and I had finished our traditional discourse about human freedom.
Of course, we enjoyed a sumptuous banquet; no one could make gefilte fish as well as my mother. The chicken soup was golden and befitting the kinglike figure of my father, wearing his white robe while sitting in a large chair surrounded by many pillows, where the afikomen had been hidden and redeemed from my brother, who stole it and held it for ransom.
We all sang with great gusto, although most of the time somewhat off key, before we chanted the thanksgiving prayer for the food we had eaten. Now the special silver cup — Elijah’s becher (chalice) — was filled with wine and set in the middle of the table.
“Benjamin,” my father called out, “will you open the door?”
My younger brother did so, and a burst of cool air blew in. It was still quite cool in Munkacs in the middle of April. All of us at the table rose and proclaimed “baruch habah,” welcoming the spirit of the prophet. Jarring the table a little bit, I pointed to the quavering wine in the cup and said to my little sister, “Look, Esther, Elijah came and drank from it.”
Who is this person, this Elijah? Who is this Tishbite from Gilead whom we invite each year to enter our home even for a brief moment to take a sip of wine from his special cup? He is the prophet who, according to traditional belief, ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot; he is the symbol of our hope.
Oy, Gottenyu: Oh, dear G-d, times are hard, and it is ever more difficult to earn a decent parnosoh. Life is getting more bitter and difficult amid the increasing anti-Semitism. I ask you, dear Elijah, be our avenging force. Pour out your wrath on these people as you did almost three millennia ago against the priests of Baal who invaded Israel. Avenge us as you did against Jezebel the evil queen. And above all, bring us geulah — redeem us from these hard times. It is time for you to announce the coming of the Messiah.
We, the Jewish people, have long dreamed about the redeemer, the anointed — maybe King David himself reincarnated or his descendent — one who will bring a new world order. For over two millennia in troubled times we have hoped for and believed in the coming of the Messiah even though he may tarry.
The coming of the Messiah was my mother’s favorite tale. She told me many times her version of the messianic period: It would be a time without strife and hatred when all people would be freed from their daily drudge and she as a woman would no longer have to cook and toil.
Didn’t you know that when the Messiah comes wondrous trees will produce fruits that will provide all the nourishment people need? We all will become vegetarians, and we no longer will need to slaughter animals because these wondrous fruits will taste like whatever our heart desires. All you’ll have to do is pluck one from the tree; all of it will be free. The fruits will as magical as the manna G-d gave our ancestors in the desert after we left Egypt.
It will be a time of peace, and we will be freed from G-d’s curse on humanity — the one declaring that with the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread. But above all else, it will be a time of peace.
We must earn the privilege of the messianic period. Many wars between Og and Magog — the ones we were told would precede the Messiah — have come and gone, and the redeemer has yet to arrive.
Our hope for the coming of the Messiah, for we believe in a literal coming, has had many obstacles. We had to contend with a slew of false messiahs, such as Shabbetai Zvi. As time passed, we began developing a sense cynicism about the whole idea of a redeemer, and, as we did with many other unrealizable hopes, we turned to humor.
Two tailors stood at the open doors to their store, waiting and hoping to attract customers. Times were hard, and the economic depression was deep. The first tailor sighed and pronounced: “Dear G-d, isn’t it time for you to send us the Messiah?” To which the other tailor responded: “Why are praying for the Messiah to come?”
“You know,” the first tailor said, “when the Messiah will come there will be techiyath hameitim — the dead will rise — and they all will need new clothes, and we will be busy.”
“Not so fast,” declared the other tailor. “When the dead will rise, among them there will be many tailors, and competition will be even more furious than now.”
“Ah, I don’t know about that,” the first tailor said. “You see, I am not worried about them; they don’t know the latest style.”
Some of our hopes associated with the Messiah were already realized. The miracle occurred May 14, 1948, just as I was getting ready to leave Germany for the United States, when the United Nations recognized Israel as an independent country. Jews from the four corners of the world, the remnants, the survivors of the Holocaust, were being taken to the Jewish country — almost 2,000 years after the Romans cleared the Jews from Judaea and forced them to disperse and live in the Diaspora.
The miracle is not complete. The essential element in the coming of the messianic world — a world in peace where nations will not teach war — is yet to come.
I still believe in and hope for the realization of Isaiah and Micah’s dream of a world sans war for a sensible humanity. I still hope for the realization of a song that I used to sing: Zolt shojn zahn de geulah, Meshiach wilt shon kumen: Let there be a redemption of the world, and the Messiah will indeed still come.