I had the most wonderful chocolate meringues last week. Made by my second cousin Linda, whom I hadn't seen since childhood. She greeted me with them as I walked into her home in the hills outside Santa Fe. Marbled slate and ivory with crushed nuts punctuating the surface, they were beautiful and delicate. They threatened to crumble to dust when touched, and they dissolved into a rich cocoa puddle on the tongue.
These were the specialty of my grandmother, Grandma Minnie, Linda told me. Do I remember?
I didn't remember. I was barely ten when Grandma Minnie died. I remember what she looked like. I remember clothes. Objects. The buttoned gloves she wore when she went out. Sometimes a whiff of cedar and mothballs will bring to mind her little apartment on Estes Avenue. But these meringues? I wasn't certain. Meringues, especially meringues with nuts, are a little bit of an adult taste, and I was a little kid from the suburbs.
I bit in, and everything in me suddenly said, "Why yes, Grandma Minnie." A few bites later, it was again just a delicious thing and now sentimental too. But for that first moment, I had the unmistakable sensation of my grandmother next to me, our hearts turned toward each other in a way that hasn't been possible for nearly half a century.
So what does this have to do with tonight, with Shabbat Hagadol, the Big Shabbos, as it is called, the special Shabbat that precedes Pesach?
There is something about this particular Shabbat that stirs together ingredients of both holidays. The themes of past and future that both Shabbat and Pesach are flavored with. Shabbat is a look-back to Creation – this being the seventh day and the completion. And it also looks ahead: Shabbat is a taste of the World to Come.
Similarly, Pesach points back to our escape from slavery. At Seder we retell this story of redemption. And Pesach points forward too. As we close the Seder we say, "Next Year in Jerusalem," that is, next year in a world of peace. And – as we wrap up the Seder, like we do at the end of Shabbat, we invite in the presenceof our old friend, the prophet Elijah. Eliyahu Hanavi.
Elijah, as you might recall, is one of our biblical figures who, according to our tradition, never died. At the end of his earthly life, God sends a chariot of fire, with flaming horses, and Elijah climbs aboard and ascends to heaven in a whirlwind. (II Kings 2:11.) Fwoosh. Gone.
But because of this story, he is considered not only a special beloved of God, but immortal. Still alive. He is, in our folklore, a kind of trickster, disguising himself to test the people, to test the waters, to see if now, at last, it is time for a final Redemption. He is rarely seen, but is suspected around every corner, expected at every table.
And Elijah loiters around this Shabbat in particular. On this Big Shabbos, we read from the book of Malachi, the last prophet of the Bible, whose name simply means "my angel" and whom some traditions consider to be yet another guise of Elijah, speaking here as God's angel and messenger. We read from the third and final chapter, which includes much pleading with us to follow God's law. And then the prophet Malachi, voicing the words of God, closes the book saying:
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְהֹוָה הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא
"Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and fearful day of YHWH." (Malachi 3:23.)
This is how we get to our tradition that Elijah will be the forerunner of the Messiah. When the world is ready, he will be the one who will lead us, once and for all, from all these narrow places of ours to the great peaceful expanse – expanded consciousness, expanded heart, expanded peace.
Oren and I got a preview of great peaceful expanse last week, on this trip of ours toNew Mexico. Just before hitting Santa Fe, we drove for an overnight in Chaco Canyon, a place we'd visited 21 years ago. And revisiting this powerful place was really the point of the whole trip. One thousand years ago Chaco was the center of a great native civilization. They built cities, pueblos, in masonry style – not from brick but from the shale of the mountains themselves, held together with mortar. The ruins of the cities still stand, alongside cliff drawings of spirals and deer and the ancestors themselves.
When we visited 21 years we both had an uncanny sense of the presence of the ancestors. We visited the park off season. I can't recall if there was even a ranger anywhere, but Oren and I were the only tourists. We camped in the vast open canyon, close to the ancient dwellings. Ours was the only car and the only tent, but still we felt as if we were hearing voices on the wind. The voices of the ancients.
And now we hopedto recapture that experience. But this time we weren't alone. There was now a visitors' center, and other tourists – not a lot, and they were all intrepid and well behaved. But still, as we walked from site to site, we were rarely completely alone; or if we were alone, it was conditional on what or who we might find around the next bend of the trail.
Chaco was magnificent as ever. But the voices of the ancients were silent. And we discovered we were not in some magical dreamland anymore. We were in a national park. We both swallowed our disappointment, each of us being two decades maturer than we were then. We knew it was a dangerous thing to try to relive an experience of such power. The expectations start high; it is a setup for failure.
We crawled into our sleeping bags that night and I imagined sending an angel, the way Jacob did in Torah, to greet the spirits of the ancestors of this place. I imagined it as hard as I could, then fell asleep awaking up intermittently, dreaming of Pesach.
In the morning we got up, warmed ourselves and packed the car. We did one more hike but the sky looked dark; rain was coming. We went to the visitors' center to send a few postcards and turned around to see that it had started to snow. And then it was flurries. And then it was a blizzard. And the snow was sticking everywhere. The flakes were huge, as if in this wide a wilderness, there was nothing to limit their growth and no advantage to compactness. Yesterday the landscape had been beautiful as expected. But this – this was new. Unexpected. Instead of leaving, we drove to one of the ancient pueblos. We walked it in the snow, utterly alone, every other tourist having taken cover. The snow, bright white, was riddled through the red-brown Chaco earth, looking like a chocolate meringue, a Chaco-lit meringue.
It felt in those moments – and who's to say what's real? – like our hearts were turned toward the ancestors, and theirs toward us. That in the unexpected snow they had given us the smile we had asked for.
In those moments we were far from any narrow place, by any definition literal or figurative. We were in the great expanse, the wide wilderness, the redemption that is promised at the end of every time of constriction.
Back in the Book of Malachi, the book of my angel, there is one more final sentence. One last word of prophecy. Not only will Elijah usher in the this awesome era of God, but:
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב־אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל־אֲבוֹתָם
"He shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents..." (Malachi 3:24.)
What a closing! What a blessing to describe! Not just the earthly relationship of flesh-and-blood people with the generations on either side of them. But a vision of reconciliation and connection with the ancestors going back into infinity, and forward for as long as we last. A vision of connection over time, loving connection. The best and deepest in us, generation after generation, all touching. Ancestors making magic. Grandmothers appearing at the taste of chocolate.
This is the text that is special on this night, on this Shabbat, where we reach back, hand holding hand, to the beginning, to the Creation, and to the exodus from Egypt, and through this Egypt of a work-week we were just in, and out of the narrow times and troubles we're living in now and forward to the expanses that together, in this time and across time, we can open up.
Each of us is the meeting point of past and future. Each of us a link in that chain. Each of us has the ability to play a small part, or a many small parts. And in this sweep from past to future, we can lean forward and back, turning our hearts toward each other. Giving greetings and courage across time.
There are many ways to do this, big and small. But if you're at a loss and you need some specific instruction, then you can try this:
Take one 6-oz package of semi-sweet chocolate chips and melt them over hot water.
Take two egg whites, beaten with salt until foamy.
Gradually add 1/2 cup of sugar, beating well until stiff points form.
Beat in 1/2 tsp vanilla and 1/2 tsp of vinegar.
Fold in the chocolate and 3/4 cup chopped walnuts.
Drop with teaspoon on a greased sheet. Bake at 350° for ten minutes.
I'm grateful to my cousin Linda Highhill for having offered the memory of the meringues back to me. And to Rabbi Shohama Wiener for her ability to distill the magic in any experience.