“Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great and awe-inspiring day of God;
And he [Elijah] will return the hearts of parents to children
and the hearts of children to their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)
These two verses were read yesterday on Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Sabbath”) that comes immediately before Pesach. They have touched and moved me since I was young in a number of ways.
As a congregational rabbi, so often I encounter parents and grown children who are alienated from each other, and though every situation is different and the sources of rupture in families are as varied as there are people, I wonder what it would take for most of these estrangements to be healed and for families to draw closer to one another. It’s my conviction that in most families, if there’s a strong enough will the breach can be healed.
In this season of Pesach, inspired by the Prophet Malachi, if this is your situation why not seize the opportunity today, now, this week, and reach out to the person or people from whom you feel distance and seek a way back to each other?
Reconciliation with the most important people in our lives (our parents and children) may tragically be too late for some families after years of alienation. It’s been my experience that unless a child or a parent suffers from mental illness or addiction disorders, it is usually a parent who provoked and/or allowed the alienation to occur with his or her child(ren) to fester over the years. Most children want positive relationships with their parents, but old injuries, accumulated anger, resentment, hatred, and calcification of negative feelings and attitudes towards the other have been allowed to make reconciliation difficult, but not impossible.
Judaism affirms the power of s’lichah (forgiveness) and t’shuvah (repentance – return) to transform our lives. These are themes not only of the High Holiday season but of Pesach too, as both are required for g’ulah (“redemption”). Judaism affirms as well that it’s possible to free ourselves from injuries born in the past and to transform them in the present so as to chart a new, different and positive future. That is the essence of the Exodus and Passover story.
What’s required may be the most difficult challenge we ever face; that parents and children look within themselves, acknowledge their own culpability for the breach, avoid blaming the other, approach the other with humility and an open heart, and then forgive both themselves and the other for whatever occurred in the past. After so long a period, it no longer really matters who caused the rupture in the beginning. Either side, and hopefully both, can and ought to reach out.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. It means “letting go” of the slights inflicted and experienced so long ago, and setting aside the aggravating and annoying quirks of personality that justify, in our minds and hearts, the distance we’ve each perpetuated and sustained.
When we forgive we heal the hurts of the past and the injuries we believe we never deserved. By forgiving, we reverse the flow of our own history. This is the meaning of redemption – that we redress grievances and restore ourselves first to ourselves and then to those nearest to us.
In another way, these Malachi verses have moved me since I was young because they stimulate my memories of my father who died so long ago, but whose voice, smell, touch, and love for me, my brother, my mother, and our family remain alive in me and all of us who he loved and who loved him. This year, these verses evoke memories of my mother too, whose soul passed from this life a few months ago. I imagine my parents’ souls communing together again, as they did with so much love and joy once upon a time, and I imagine my mother restored to her parents and siblings also, people whom she so adored in the 98+ years of her long life.
This coming Shabbat eve, families and friends will gather around the Seder table and Elijah’s empty chair will, hopefully, remind us of our parents and their parents, our sages and teachers, prophets, mystics, and tzadikim, as our people celebrates liberation and the promise of redemption. We’ll recommit ourselves to right the wrongs and injustices in our communities, among our people, in our nation and world, to reaffirm that justice must exist everywhere for us to be truly free ourselves, and that the virtues of compassion, empathy and loving-kindness are the means to affirm and concretize Judaism’s ideals of a world healed of its many breaches.
May this season be one of meaning and joyful reunion for each of us, for everyone we love, for the Jewish people, for the oppressed among the nations, and for all the inhabitants of the earth.
Chag Pesach Sameach!