Why is Elijah invited to the Seder?

The Passover Eve Seder is a ritual-filled family meal marking our ancestor’s exodus from Egypt. Everything about the Seder is significant. Bitter herbs reflect our acrid experience. Matzah recalls our hasty escape. Saltwater imitates our tears. Poultry evokes the sacrificial lamb. A nut paste represents mortar used in brickmaking. A Hagadah tells the story. And four cups of wine are our toast to G-d for delivering us with these four expressions of redemption: A fifth cup of wine is poured, but left untouched. It is “Elijah’s Cup.” Elijah was a prophet who lived some five centuries after the Exodus. What does he have to do with all this?! Let’s take a look at three answers. Amid the Talmud’s hair-splitting debates over fine points of Torah Law are a handful of legal deadlocks. These, the Talmud notes, will be resolved by Elijah in the Messianic Era.  For example, the Sages debated whether to have 4 or 5 cups of wine at the seder: Some have suggested that a fifth cup is poured but not consumed, and that it is named after Elijah because it is he who will resolve this historic dilemma. But the mystics take an entirely different approach. In the 9th century BCE, Elijah fled from the Kingdom of Israel’s evil Queen Jezebel and King Achab. Elijah fled to the wilderness, ascending Mount Sinai. “What are you doing here?!” asked G-d. “The Israelites abandoned Your covenant!” replied the prophet. “They destroyed Your altars and put Your prophets to the sword! I alone remain and they seek to kill me too!” G-d was displeased at Elijah’s vilifying the entire nation, and bade his spirit visit circumcision throughout the ages to testify that the nation uphold G-d’s covenant. Since the Passover offering is reserved for the circumcised, Elijah visits each Passover Seder as well. Hence the custom of Elijah’s Chair at a circumcision and Elijah’s Cup at a Seder.    And finally, an answer that’s transformative: The Exodus launched a millennia-long journey that will culminate in the Messianic era. Until injustice, violence, and greed disappear, we remain enslaved. Until G-d makes His home on Earth, we have not truly left Egypt. Each Passover empowers us to complete what was begun so long ago. The last of the biblical prophets declared that Elijah will herald the ultimate redemption. His cup at our Seder encourages our march from every form of internal and external slavery and re-inspires our faith in the coming of Moshiach.

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