Rabbi Jonathan Kendall: Empty Chairs

A Pesach anecdote: when I became the Senior Rabbi at a large Miami congregation, among my many meetings with the Founding Rabbi Emeritus, the issue of the community Seder (though months away) became the focus of one discussion.

“At our Temple’s Seder, Elijah actually shows up,” he shared. Setting institutional hubris aside for a moment, I managed to ask,”How so?”

Rabbi Jonathan P. KendallA
Rabbi Jonathan P. KendallA

Apparently, for years, an original member of the congregation would dress up as Elijah, faux biblical costume, fake beard, imposing staff – and at the appropriate moment (the singing of Eliahu Ha-navi) he would appear on stage. As the final “HaTishbi” was sung, he would rap the staff on the stage floor, a hush would fall over the room, and he would recite the sublime message about the “hearts of parents being turned to the hearts of children…” then exit, stage left.

“That’s all he does?” I asked. “No miracles or the imminent arrival of the Messiah?” I was such a wise mouth!

“No, we’ll have to wait for the Messiah, but we never have to wait for Mr. Ginsburg (or whatever his name was – a long time ago in a Jewish galaxy far away) – he’s been doing this for thirty years.” To be honest with you, I found this to be in the category of “schtick,” but for Mr. Ginsburg’s sake and his feelings alone (not to mention the obvious personal investment of my predecessor), I gave my assent. The months unfolded and when the time finally arrived, I noticed that during the singing of Eliahu, all eyes shifted from the door some kid had opened on one side of the social hall to the stage. Elijah – live and in living color – was an integral and cherished part of this congregation’s Pesach ritual and when he appeared, the assembled burst into applause. Aside from the invaluable lesson learned about congregational memes and the indispensible interaction between an emeritus and a successor, I also gave myself the license to create a few of my own ceremonies and brought them to my Seder table.

One of the best – besides the obligatory green onion lashing of the slaves, the orange on the Seder plate (along with other items – edible and non-edible – representing the cause or issue du jour), I have the Ritual of the Empty Chairs. Now, there is always a place and cup for Elijah, but I know – at least rationally – that he isn’t going to show up at MY table. I imagine one must either hear the footsteps of the Messiah or have felt his (or her) birth pangs in order to be in the running for that appearance. But at one point in the Seder – before everyone begins to check their phones for incoming texts, play angry birds with the volume on low or furtively steal a glance at their watches for the elapsed time – I invite everyone to stand and take a place behind their chair. We then go around the table and everyone is obliged to comment on the empty chair before them and who should be, ought to be, we wish they could be sitting there. For a brief moment, it is the Seder of the subjunctive. Flowing out into the ether of Passover and mingling with the distinctive aromas are memories of parents, grandparents, friends long gone. But this isn’t Yizkor or a Qaddish list; this is also about the child who couldn’t make it home from college or the family who now lives too far away. And we don’t just recite names; there must be a narrative, a story, an account or tall tale of what they brought to a Seder long ago. These can be hysterically funny or tearfully touching chronicles and all the points in between. We may eat history at our Sedarim, but we are consumed by relationships. As the saying goes, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, in this case, the parts are often greater than the whole. These groaning tables of ours are decorated with more than ritual foods. They are garnished with memories and beautified by the connections we have or have had with people who shared this improbably compelling celebration.

We conclude with “Next year in Jerusalem,” but we discover that we can create our own at home, surrounded by family and friends and the countless benedictions of memory. We can, through the mystical alchemy of the moment, even fill empty chairs.

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