Saturday, April 23, 2011
Eliyahu's Cup: Why Utopia is Always 'Not Yet'
This week is Pesach, and last Monday evening, Jews worldwide gathered to usher in the "Season of our Freedom" by participating in the annual ritual of the Seder, a meal surrounded by the telling of our redemption from slavery. And through telling the story, the Haggadah takes us each year through the journey from slavery to freedom.
The Seder has a prescribed order, and the ritual is set up to tell the story four times and in four different ways, corresponding to the four promises made by G-d during the going forth from Egypt. Each promise is linked to one of the four glasses of wine that is drunk during the Seder, and each telling is linked to a particular type of bondage. The tellings address what it means to be so enslaved, and why the Eternal demands freedom from every bondage not only for our ancestors but for us, so that the by the end of the Seder each year, we have progressed through tellings of physical and mental and spiritual servitude and into freedom.
But there is also a fifth cup representing a fifth promise: 'I will bring you into the land.' The fifth cup is set out for Eliyahu ha-Navi (Elijah the prophet), a mythic, apocalyptic figure whose coming foreshadows the coming of the Messiah. During the ritual for the fifth cup, we read From Malachi, who wrote:
"Behold, I shall send to you Eliyahu ha-Navi before (in the face of) the great and awesome day of Adonai; and he shall return the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents lest I shall come and strike the land with cherem (war of total destruction)." (My translation: many Haggadot leave out the phrase starting with "lest" at the end of verse).
After these words are read, Eliyahu's cup is set down untasted, for this is the only promise of the Seder that is left unfilled, as Eliyahu's time is not yet. After the promise is pronounced and the cup set down still full, and the door opened for Eliyahu is shut, then the assembly joins hands and sings Eliyahu ha-Navi, expressing the unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing for the coming of Utopia, a time that is always not yet.
Human beings have been dreaming of Utopia--the perfect world--since we achieved an understanding of linear time. What was cannot be changed, and what is will pass away, and there is no going back, only forward. But with this understanding came the idea that at some point that is entirely unknown and unutterable, time could come to an end. And so after--if the word has any meaning--the world as we know it will become unknown, and what is will be static and perfect. And dead. So dreadful and so terrifying to contemplate is this vision, not only one's own death, but of total non-existence and non-order. So terrible and dreadful it is, that people substituted the idea of perfection attained while still living, Utopia, a time/place where "everywhere will be called Eden once again", according to Judy Chicago.
But perfection is the enemy of the growing and changing that is always in the living. Biological beings, full of life, can never be perfect. There is always the movement, the exchange of molecules, the division of a cell, the dying and the coming to be. Eden was, if it ever was, and can never be again. Eden was not perfect, it was full of life; it was innocent of choice and therefore, of any knowledge of good and evil. It is a restoration of innocence that is longed for in Utopian visions, that is what perfection is understood to be, in that elusive Utopia.
Utopia, is innocence imposed, and it is therefore the opposite of freedom. For freedom requires consciousness and choice, which means an understanding of life and death, of goodness and evil. Utopia is cosmic equality imposed, and is therefore the opposite of the fullness of of life and freedom. For as soon as life exists, differences among individuals are introduced and differences are inherently unequal in the cosmic sense. For human beings, choice brings the inequalities to our conscious awareness, for choice by its very definition implies different possibilities of action, which creates differences in outcomes, inherently unequal.
In the Passover Seder, we tell the story of going from the slavery of physical bondage to freedom, from the degradation of idolatry and dependence to liberty. Each step of our liberation requires choice, and differences among us evolve with our freedom. Elijah's cup goes untasted, because as much as we may long for perfection,it is goodness we are after, and goodness requires the freedom to choose. Freedom is inherent to the nature of the human being, and necessary for the fullness of life.
Eliyahu does not bring the "great and awesome", terrifying nothingness of Utopia. Instead he turns parents and their children toward one another; their differences not erased, but understood, in order to reach fullness of life and prevent total destruction.
Our Rabbis were wise, they understood the human longing for perfection, and they understood that perfection is another idolatry. Therefore, although they recognized our desire for it and accommodated it, they also understood that it is freedom that we need in order to live and live well. And they put it all in the Seder.