Towards the Seder’s conclusion, there is a universally accepted tradition to open the door and pour a cup of wine for Eliyahu HaNavi, traditionally recognized as the harbinger of redemption and salvation in general, and Mashiach in particular. Customarily, this is an honor bestowed on an elder, or perhaps someone who is sick or needs to get married.
Taking the legend of Eliyahu HaNavi at face value, it’s not hard to understand why we might want the herald of redemption to visit our Seder. But while all the Seder’s gestures and rituals are laden with meaning, no-one seriously thinks that Eliyahu uses the front door to attend!
So why do we open the door?
The Midrash imagines God telling us that if we open up an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God will expand our efforts into an opening the size of a hall. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that if God asks us to open up all year round and remove the boundaries and impediments holding us back, then the magic of Pesach is that we don’t even have to do that! The Chag is called Passover because God passes over boundaries – וּפָסַחְתִּי. In other words, the door is open; we just need to show up!
But there might be something else to it as well.
The Seder prominently features four cups of wine that mark our redemption, and Eliyahu has the honor of the fifth cup for redemptions yet to come. But what that means then is that the Seder’s theme isn’t solely about celebrating past redemption; it’s also fundamentally about hope – proactively anticipating redemption, looking for it, and seeking it out.
We open the Haggadah reading with an open invitation to all to join our Seder, closing with the wish to merit another next Seder in Israel – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. In other words, while we’re celebrating a partial redemption while still in exile, we are inviting everyone to share in our hope as well.
The Yerushalmi tells of two sages traveling through the night. As the sun slowly broke over the horizon, expelling the darkness that had defined their long and lonely journey, a sage commented that redemption looks exactly the same. There’s a long period of darkness, but then suddenly, there’s just a glimmer of brightness, then a faint ray of light, until the sun finally peeks over the horizon, and before long, it’s a bright new day, and darkness is banished for good.
Centuries of trauma in Egypt decisively ended in exactly this way. The very first Seder night was the night God struck the Egyptian firstborn while the Jewish People were locked in their homes – לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח־בֵּיתוֹ עַד־בֹּקֶר. But when morning came, a new era had dawned with it. The Sfas Emes reminds us that our exile and our troubles are similarly only until dawn comes for us – עַד־בֹּקֶר.
So in a sense, maybe that’s the promise embodied by Eliyahu HaNavi, the eternal symbol of hope. Perhaps we’re not opening the door for Eliyahu HaNavi at all; he probably doesn’t use doors. But maybe, like those sages and so many others who have come before us, we open the door for a hopeful and yearning look for the early light. The imagery of the custom for an elder or a person in distress opening the door is powerful and moving; this person is actively looking for the first glimmer of light, still holding onto hope.
Our ancestors held on to hope in far worse circumstances, and we can too. Dawn’s early light always came for them eventually, and it’s coming for us too.
You just have to open the door.