Who is Elijah? Beggar, scoundrel, heavenly emissary?

Friday, April 10, 1998 | by

LORI EPPSTEIN



Rabbi Ari Cartun was just 16 when he encountered Elijah the prophet in a city bus station.

"I was taking a bus from New York to St. Louis, where I lived, when a gross, smelly and vulgar sailor sat next to me," the rabbi recalled.

At the first pit stop in Philadelphia, the young Cartun ran to get as far from the drunken sailor as possible. When he reached the rear of the bus station, he turned around to find a couple of young thugs coming for him with knives.

His back to the wall, he had nowhere to run. Suddenly, behind the advancing toughs, the sailor appeared from around the corner.

He walked up behind them, reached out his hands for their heads, and knocked them together. The youths fell to the ground unconscious.

"It was like something out of a cartoon. I stuck to him like glue until St. Louis," said Cartun, now 48 and spiritual leader of Palo Alto's Congregation Etz Chayim.

Cartun didn't immediately associate the sailor with Elijah. But some years later he came to believe that the prophet, known to some as a guardian angel, had appeared that day to save him.

The experience "has made me very aware that any smelly refuse of humanity has something to offer, and we should never turn them away."

According to tradition, Elijah has appeared to individuals in many guises since he was destined to wander the earth as a heavenly emissary. He is the guardian of the ailing and the newborn, and helper of the hopeless. Elijah is a beggar, a scoundrel and a non-Jewish peasant. He is the one who heralds the arrival of the Messiah.

Mostly, he is the ghostly visitor on the eve of Passover who slurps a cup of wine while children are not looking.

As the night on which Elijah is invited into our homes draws near once more, Cartun and area rabbis recall their experiences and those of others who have had a brush with the mysterious angel.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Berkeley's Chabad House says Elijah is present at every boy's brit; his job is to heal the circumcision.

Ferris recalled a story told by local mohel Chanan Feld of a brit that happened about 50 years ago:

A mohel paid a social visit to the home of an 8-day-old baby boy. The family hadn't planned a brit because they were waiting for the child's terminally ill father to die; they wanted to name the boy after his father.

Dismayed with the situation, the mohel proclaimed that there would be a brit. Suddenly, the ailing father got out of bed and started dancing around. The mohel explained to the family that Elijah had come to take care of the baby and also decided to take care of the father while he was there.

"Elijah is the angel of healing," Ferris explained. "He was killing two birds with one stone."

The Chabad rabbi recalled that Feld had told the tale at arecent brit. An old woman approached Feld afterward and said she knew the story well.

That mohel was my father, she said.

Ferris could not say whether Elijah had ever paid him a visit, but he recalled a drugged and homeless immigrant who walked in on one of his communal seders.

"We invited him in, and he ate and he drank. Who knows who that man was? You don't know who Elijah is because he is incognito.

"We have to treat everyone like Elijah."

Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom had a similar experience while hosting a Shabbat potluck at a San Luis Obispo synagogue. Manhoff invited the wanderer to join his group. The man accepted, pulled a kippah from his scroungy pack, and settled in to the meal.

But on Passover, it has been Manhoff's cat that ambles in on the prophet's cue.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg of Palo Alto said she has never met Elijah. But she doesn't discount the possibility that a seemingly ordinary incident could turn into an Elijah encounter.

"One person doesn't see [the incident] as remarkable. Another person might wonder whether God's presence was there," she said. "All of a sudden it's special."

Elijah represents hope in the face of despair, she explained.

Like filling Elijah's cup, Eilberg said even the suggestion of the prophet's presence can create a sense of holiness. She recalled an old story of a monastery in which the monks had lost their enthusiasm for prayer. They didn't feel that God was with them.

Hearing of a wonderful rebbe who lived in the next village, they sent for him to learn how to regain their faith. The rabbi had no advice. But he told the monks that one in their midst was the prophet Elijah.

The monks looked at one another, wondering which of them was the prophet. They started treating each other differently. Soon it became clear that their newfound wonder marked a return of faith.

One of the most recent Elijah sightings in the Bay Area was in a church. The alleged appearance took place last year during an interfaith seder at the Danville Congregational Church.

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman, then-spiritual leader of Danville's Beth Chaim Congregation, had just concluded the seder. The Christian leader, Elizabeth Chandler Felts, was about to begin a Catholic Tenebrae service in which candles that represent the apostles who abandoned Jesus are extinguished one by one.

"Before the lights could be dimmed, Elijah came," Heiligman recalled.

A homeless man entered the church "with a chip on his shoulder, demanding alms and declaring his need."

Several people ushered the man into the kitchen for some food. The guests shifted nervously in their chairs as the man's loud protests echoed from the kitchen.

Heiligman reminded the guests that "holiness isn't always pretty." She told them of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's encounter with Elijah, who told the rabbi that the Messiah could be found at the gates of the city.

Ben Levi went and found the Messiah there, a beggar among beggars. Bandages covered his running sores.

Ben Levi asked, when is the Master coming?

Today, replied the beggar.

Ben Levi rushed in a tizzy back to Elijah and said: The Messiah "spoke falsely to me. He said he would come today, and he has not come."

Elijah set him straight: The Messiah meant he'd come only if his voice could be heard.

Obviously neither ben Levi nor the Jewish people were ready for the Messiah that day.

Heiligman was satisfied that her seder guests understood the significance of helping even a belligerent beggar. But the rabbi admitted missing the opportunity to invite a needy man to her family's seder.

Felts conceded that she too thought something more could have been done for the beggar. After all, the Christian leader told Heiligman with tears in her eyes, "It's not every day that I meet Jesus face to face."

During another Heiligman seder, this time at her Hayward home, two of her guests discovered during the ceremony that their car had been towed.

It had been blocking a driveway that they didn't recognize as such, Heiligman explained.

At the impound lot, the tow-truck driver noted that the engine had still been warm when he had arrived to get it. He speculated that the neighbors had watched the couple walk away, then reported the illegally parked car without asking them to move it.

Not having the money to pay the fine, the couple charged it to their credit card. But later, they discovered that the sympathetic towing man—Elijah, perhaps?—never processed the charge.