Things That Hold Us Back From Fulfilling Our Spiritual Potential [Parshat Tzav By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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A medieval astrologer once prophesied to a king that his beloved wife, the Queen, would soon die. Sure enough, the woman died a short time later. The king was outraged at the astrologer, certain that his prophecy had brought about his wife’s death. He summoned the astrologer and challenged him: “Prophet, tell me when you will die!”

The astrologer realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately, no matter what answer he gave. Finally he replied, “I do not know when I will die. I only know that whenever I die, you will die three days later!”

His life was spared.

One of the most famous characters in all of Jewish history is Eliyahu haNavi, Elijah the Prophet. Elijah was able to perform miracles at will, simply by asking G-d for help. He was able to stop the rainfall during the reign of the wicked King Achav, help a poor widow survive by making her small supply of flour and oil last indefinitely, and was even able to bring her son back to life after he succumbed to sickness.

Elijah’s pièce de résistance, however, was the showdown with the prophets of Baal. Famine had ravaged the land of Israel for three years (as a punishment for the Jews’ forsaking of G-d to worship the idol Baal) and King Achav was desperate. A loaf of bread could not be bought even for its own weight in gold. Elijah appears before him with a challenge; let the 850 prophets of Baal meet him on Mount Carmel, where each group would offer a sacrifice to their deity. Elijah would offer a young bull to G-d, and the prophets of Baal would offer the same to their god — with one caveat — they had to do this without lighting the fire on the altar. If Baal was a powerful god surely he would be able to light the fire on his own …

The challenge was accepted, and two young bulls were brought up the mountain to be offered. The scene was watched by large crowds of people, mainly Jews who were unsure where their allegiance should lie. Elijah turned to the people of Israel and addressed them with a rousing oration. He cried out to them, “How long can you sit on the fence? You worship idols, but when in trouble you turn to G-d. There cannot be two truths. If you recognize G-d’s might, why don’t you remain loyal to Him? But if you believe in Baal, let Baal help you now!”

The prophets of Baal tried in vain to get their god to light the fire and consume the offering, to no avail. When they gave up, exhausted, Elijah took over. He drenched his offering and the wood on the altar with water, and surrounded it with a ditch filled with water, before asking G-d in a simple prayer to let it be known that He is truly the G-d of Israel. No sooner had the words left his lips, than a fire descended from Heaven and consumed the sacrifice and the altar in its entirety. There was no mistaking what had taken place, and the people fell on their faces and cried out an expression we repeat to this very day in the last few moments of Yom Kippur: “The L-rd, He is G-d! The L-rd, He is G-d!” These words encapsulate the absolute clarity the Jews had at that time, to which we aspire on the Day of Atonement.

It is this Elijah about whom tradition has it that he visits every home where a Brit Milah is being held, and it is this Elijah who some believe visits every Seder table too.

The story is told about the great Rebbe of Kotzk, Poland who promised his followers one year that Eliyahu haNavi would be revealed at his seder. News spread rapidly and the house was crammed with people for the festival meal. The atmosphere was electric as everyone waited for the moments when the wine is poured and the front door is opened for Elijah … yet no one appeared. The door was opened and closed and disappointment filled the air. What had happened to the revelation they had been promised by their Rebbe?

The Rebbe had no such problems. His face was glowing with spiritual ecstasy, until he realised what those in the room were feeling. “Foolish people,” he said to his disciples. “Do you really think that Elijah the Prophet enters through the door? Elijah enters through the heart!”

Pesach is a time that we celebrate freedom and redemption. We remember the freedom of our ancestors and we try to relive that in our daily lives; freedom from stress and pressure, freedom from negative influences and feelings; freedom from peer and societal pressure to conform to values different than those we hold dear. What the Rebbe of Kotzk was saying is that true freedom comes from within. The Exodus story provides us with inspiration and faith … the rest is up to us.

When we are able to break free from those things that hold us back from fulfilling our spiritual potential we will merit to see the words of this week’s haftarah come true. At the end of the haftarah reading G-d tells us, “Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of Hashem.” For when Elijah does arrive, he will bring with him tidings of the imminent arrival of Mashiach, and of a redemption as great as the one we remember every year on seder night. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.


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