Despite the shoots and blossoms promised by the parsley on our seder plate, Pesach in St. Paul can feel more like the end of winter than the beginning of spring. Inside the social hall of Minnesota's Mt. Zion Temple, 150 congregants found warmth at our community seder. Dinner had just been served when a staff member whispered, "There's someone at the door."
Excusing myself, I approached the expansive glass doors that architect Erich Mendelsohn had designed to provide a light-filled welcome to our synagogue. Outside in the cold moist air stood a man of late middle age, medium height and build, wearing a coat and tie covered by a tatty raincoat. His expression seemed both perplexed and sad.
I opened the door for him and smiled. He did not move.
"Is there a seder here tonight?" he asked.
"Yes, you're just in time," I replied, stretching the truth to make him feel wanted. "Please come in."
He hesitated, seemed to rock from one foot to the other. Then he half-mumbled, "I, I don't know…."
At that instant, I had an instinctual, visceral, deep-seated Jewish feeling-a sure knowledge-that this was no ordinary visitor. Though the opening of the door for Elijah was still a good half hour away, the actual moment had arrived. Surely this was Elijah standing before me, temporizing until he could determine if this were to be the heraldic hour. Would this be the beginning of our redemption?
"There's a place for you at our table," I said in a beckoning voice. Still, he vacillated, his eyes darting from side to side, considering.
So I gambled on force. Ever so slightly, I tugged at the lapel of Elijah's battered raincoat, hoping the body inside the coat would follow. "Please," I implored.
"No!" he exclaimed, brushing off my tug and rushing into the cold blackness.
Shaken, I returned to my seat. "Is everything all right?" someone asked. "You look pale."
"'Elijah' was at the door," I said, "and I failed to bring him in."
The next morning I awoke with a realization: "Elijah" cannot be forced across the threshold. We open the door for him, we invite him in, but whether or not he enters is his choice. Not even the slightest tug on his garment is permitted. That's where I went wrong, like so many generations before me. Next time I'll know better, and if not I, perhaps someone else who has heard this story. Meanwhile, I'll continue to try to shape a world where "Elijah" will feel welcome enough to walk through the door.
Since that cold Pesach night, my Passover observance has changed, emotionally, spiritually. Ever the rationalist, I once allowed no room for a mystical moment. Now, mystical possibilities remain. "Elijah" may well be out there somewhere, not simply waiting to enter, but considering, pondering, evaluating whether the moment has come to step inside. Now, on seder nights, every time we open the door for "Elijah," a door opens in my heart.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner is a spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Shalom, Montreal, Quebec.