My Dinner With Elijah
I am about as Jewish as I am Chinese. For that matter, I am about as religious as I am male. I was raised – a girlie and atheist tomboy – by intellectual artistic types who taught me to question everything, find meaning and magic everywhere, keep the useful bits and toss the rest. As a result, my relationship with any religion and spirituality is more like a visit to a superstore than a church. I tend to pick and choose the magical useful bits from all of them, and disregard the rest. I then take those bits and use them to help me to sort through my soul’s quagmire and find the prize that’s buried in the clutter of life.
That’s where my dinner with Elijah comes in.
That kid failed to show up at countless dinners in my youth. (We observed lots of holidays with our friends of many religions.) Yet, no matter what, there was always a place for him. And he got real wine! In my child-brain, it was roughly the same as leaving cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. I was totally fine with it.
Then there would come the bit about going to the door and checking to see if he had arrived. Followed by feigned disappointment and the somber resentment that once again we had been dissed by the imaginary dude. My child-brain could not make this leap. Food for imaginary beings and flying animals? No sweat. Being disappointed by the realization that the fairy tale you’re telling yourself isn’t real, and getting all wrought about it? That made no sense.
But whatever, I was going to go home and eat bacon anyway.
In general, Judaism has a lot magical and useful bits that I like, but none that have captured my soul like Elijah, and the dinner he never attends. No matter what, there is always a place for him. That place is magical and sacred and open, even when he disregards it. As if his stubborn refusal to accept the magic and bounty offered to him in no way impacts the magic and the bounty.
And this is why as a kid, I think, I was bothered by the drama around the fact that he didn’t show up. That didn’t seem like the point to me. The point, to me, was that despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, these people had faith that something joyous was going to happen. Why would you ruin that by checking? The most surefire way to kill hope is to dash it with facts.
This seems like a way better test than the whole glass half empty or half full question. You’re an optimist if you set the place and have a great dinner. You’re a pessimist if you check. (And, now that I think about it, may explain why so many of the people I know who were raised Jewish are such pessimistic people, who have a hard time staying open, taking risks and believing in things. Man, this whole ritual is about putting out tons of hope and having your head slammed in the door when you go to check. I’d probably stop sticking my neck out too. But I digress. And generalize.)
Anyway, the Elijah thing. It works for me for lots of reasons. First of all, it is impossible for me to picture the room that is my warm and open soul without imagining a gigantic dining table filled with friends, family and love. Preparing and sharing food is probably the purest manifestation of my soul.
But also, I am that person who sets places for impossible and irrational magic. I just believe, always, that something amazing is about to happen. It’s not like I have huge empty spaces in me and some dark longing to be fulfilled and saved. Quite the opposite, I feel like I have these huge pockets of light in me that are ready to be filled and it is these spaces – and the bounty they can contain – that make my world so huge. And exciting, because I never know what’s coming, or when, but I have left room.
But, it is actually the more direct metaphor that really gets me here. That no matter what, I leave places open for people. Even people who hurt me, disregard me, don’t appreciate the bounty that I offer them. If you ever had a place at my table, you always have a place at my table.
But all I can do it set the place and prepare the meal. I can’t make you join me. I won’t even bother to ask you explicitly. It is not my job, or within my power. My joy comes from making it, and knowing that I have space to receive whatever gifts are brought. And from not letting disappointment, resentment or fear change that. I will not go to the door and check to see if you are coming, or if you have arrived, because my bounty, the delicious gift that is me, has nothing to do with you. Whether you choose to enjoy it or not, that’s your business. But your decision will not define my feast.
I know that Rosh Hashanah (which is today) is not Elijah’s party. But personally, I set a table for him at every party. Actually, I have a fridge full of leftovers for him. I will make him a latte any day of the week.
And in my soul, he always has a bright room to fill up with his bounty, if he wants to. It’s who I am. I have plenty of places set, and I have no doubt they will be filled with meaningful, magical and useful bits.
I’ll toss the rest out when the party is over. But out the back door, not the front, because I have no interest in checking to see whether it’s real or not. I’m pretty sure it’s just a game anyway, and checking on someone else’s progress just isn’t a game I want to play. The party is now – it’s not the past or the future, and it doesn’t matter who or what is coming down the path because I know, for sure, that something is. It will be wonderful, and I made more than enough food – and space. If you don’t join me, that has nothing to do with me.
Now that I wrote this, I am reminded of my favorite scene in the movie Adaptation, in which Nicholas Cage plays twin brothers discussing something that happened in high school:
Charlie Kaufman: There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.
Donald Kaufman: Oh, God. I was so in love with her.
Charlie Kaufman: I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.
Donald Kaufman: I remember that.
Charlie Kaufman: Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.
Donald Kaufman: I knew. I heard them.
Charlie Kaufman: How come you looked so happy?
Donald Kaufman: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
Charlie Kaufman: But she thought you were pathetic.
Donald Kaufman: That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.