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When We Treat Strangers Kindly, We’re Deemed Ready for Peace

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In Jewish tradition, Elijah the prophet never really died.

Accordingly, it is thought that at some time in the future, Elijah will come and announce the coming of the Messiah, the coming of an age of peace. In early Christianity, John the Baptist played the “Elijah” role.

Over the years, Elijah becomes a formidable part of Jewish ritual. At the Passover Seder (meal), we open the door for Elijah the prophet.

We also recall Elijah at the end of the Sabbath, at a ritual circumcision or a baby naming for a girl.

Our hope is that Elijah will come to us and announce the coming of the messianic era, an era of peace.

In our tradition, it is said that often Elijah appears in the guise of an old beggar. The legend is that if we treat beggars kindly, the world is deemed ready for peace.

Think about it! Who is more of a stranger than a beggar?

In the late 1990s, it was not uncommon for rather strange looking people to come into downtown Temple during services.

We were so concerned about security at that time that we did something that we thought would suffice; namely, we bought mace and placed it in the lectern on the pulpit.

Thank God we never had to use it! At that time, by contrast to today, it never occurred to us to hire armed guards.

One night, right as our Sabbath service was about to begin, a man came into services looking extremely disheveled.

He was caring a backpack and other bags. It seemed to me that he was carrying everything he owned in the world.

We started the service as usual, but I must admit that I was afraid. When we stood to sing one particular prayer in Hebrew, I was struck that the disheveled man sang it. At that moment, it was obvious to me that this person was Jewish.

I felt a little bit more secure, but not entirely, and I kept my eye on him for most of the service.

After the service was over, I noticed that he went to our reception at which we served cookies, cheese, wine and so on. There, he ate an enormous amount of food.

I began to realize that this was a Jew who was not simply seeking to be with other Jews on the Sabbath, but who was seeking to eat as if it were a Sabbath meal. (Services were at 8 p.m., so inviting the man to a Sabbath dinner at one of our homes would not have been in the cards.) So, I watched as this man ate and ate and ate his Sabbath dinner from our reception.

Later, I would feel badly about this whole event and my response to it. Then, I realized that this man might not have been simply a beggar, a disheveled Jew. This man could’ve been none other than Elijah the prophet.

Maybe because I and our community did not sufficiently welcome him, the Messiah or the messianic era was not to be or did not come?

I have also often wondered what my reaction and that of the congregation would be were this to happen again. I am not sure.

I do know there are probably poor and homeless people who some of the times come to our services not only to pray, but to eat.

As time went on, I became convinced that on that night, I had met Elijah the prophet.

I hope that, at some time in the future, God will bless me with the privilege of meeting him or her again.

I can only hope that next time I would welcome the beggar, welcome this stranger, welcome the immigrant (documented and undocumented) with open arms.

One last thought. A Protestant colleague and I were once having lunch together when we mused about what would happen if the Messiah really were to come.

We both agreed it would be irrelevant to know if this was the first or second coming.

What we concluded was that were the Messiah to be a Jewish carpenter, he would ask all of us to convene quickly in a public park near our two religious institutions.

He would ask us to bring our tool boxes, telling us that from there, we all – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and so on; people of all faiths, creeds, races and sexual orientations – would go together, as one, to build houses for the poor and homeless.

That would be the Messiah’s way of beginning to bring peace to our world.

“Bim-hay-rah Be-yam-may-nu, Ya-vo aley-nu.” May Elijah the prophet come quickly in our time! May we all be blessed with peace, speedily and soon!

Editor’s note: This article is part of an EthicsDaily.com series this week focused on peacemaking. The previous articles in the series are:

Balancing Idealism and Realism as We Seek Peace on Earth | Richard Wilson

Revisiting the 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory | David Gushee

Why You Must Pursue the Biblical Call of Peacemaker | Rod Benson

4 Ways You Can Build Peace with Those of Different Faiths | Martin Accad

Fred Guttman

Fred Guttman is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and served in an Israel combat unit in the 1980s.