Our Torah reading today is the story of the binding of Isaac. The parasha pivots on the angel who stays Abraham’s obedient hand and points to the ram caught by its horns in the thickets. According to midrashic tradition, this specific ram was created by God in advance of the world and sat in heaven waiting for the day of its purpose, the akeda. Nothing of the ram was wasted. His hide became a cloak for Elijah the prophet. His guts became the strings for David’s harp. One horn was used by Moses to announce God’s giving of the ten commandments at Sinai. The other horn will be used by Elijah when he one day announces the coming of the messiah and the time of peace for all humanity in heaven and on earth.
I have found myself recently captivated by Elijah the prophet and his role in Judaism’s theology of end of days. According to tradition, at the end of days, Elijah will ride a white donkey into the walled city of Jerusalem while sounding a shofar and announcing the coming of the mashiach, the messiah, the redeemer. At the time of his shofar blast, humanity will have achieved great spiritual heights, will have almost ended war and violence. In that moment, Elijah will guide us in finishing the work of peace, helping friends and family reunite and ending arguments, as the mashiach enters the gates of Jerusalem.
There are a variety of Jewish beliefs about what happens to our bodies and our souls after death. Some have us joining God in heaven for Talmud study, in others the divine spark given to us at birth returns to God’s essense. I have always loved the teaching of the end of days… that when mashiach comes, the dead will rise and stand before God to be judged. Those who lived righteous lives will live again, those who did not will be as dust. And what do we do in the thousand or so years some will wait from death until the Mashiach comes? God will give them wings and they will fly, says the midrash. I find this very comforting, the idea that my personal destiny is tied to the destiny of all humanity, that there is not only a spiritual place after death, but that beyond that there is a time that peace descends to earth, and all are present.
Judaism is not replete with discussion on death and the end of days… We don’t talk about what happens after death on a weekly basis, the way other religions do. Instead we focus on the mitzvoth… But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our liturgy is full of the imagery and vocabulary of end of days: who will live and who will die. Most notable is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: we will pass before God like sheep pass before the shepherd, the angels will tremble and announce behold it is the day of judgement. God will judge each of us and all is recorded in the book of judgement. These themes were taken from Judaism’s theology about the end of days, the time after the Mashiach comes and all who have passed away arise again, to stand before God for final judgement. The author of the Unetaneh Tokef piyyut applied them to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die. A new layer of meaning is created… Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur foreshadow the theme of judgement at the end of days. The final judgement may be after Mashiach comes, but the time of judgement is happening now, with each year, each day, each moment. We are reminded that our lives our finite, our days and hours counted. The prayer asks us to understand each year of life given to us as the precious and limited gift that it is. It foresees that in the coming year some of us will die and but that in this moment we have choice, we have potential, we have life. What will we choose to do with the days, the years, before us?
The prophet Elijah is hidden within the Unetaneh Tokef. He is, as the midrashist would say found in the spaces between the words. He is in the kol d’mah mah dakkah, the still small voice. We read in Unetaneh Tokef “The shofar is sounded, the still small voice is heard.” This is a reference to two traditions about Elijah, the first that he will sound the shofar at the end of days, at the time of judgement. The second the kol d’mah mah dakkah, the still small voice, is taken from a story of Elijah’s encounter with God in the Torah.
Elijah after much service to God, asks to see God’s presence. God tells Elijah to stand upon Mount Sinai, promising that God’s presence would pass by him. The story parallels Moses’s earlier experience. First “a great and strong wind tore the mountains,” and after the wind that broke rocks into pieces, there was an earthquake. And after the earthquake, there was a fire. The text tells us that God not in the wind, nor in the earthquake after it, nor even in the ethereal fire. After the fire, the text tells us, there was the kol d’mah mah dakkah, the still small voice, and that is where God could be found.
That still, small voice beckons us to pay attention. But we only hear it if we listen for it. It’s the voice of our conscience, the voice of our deepest truths, the voice of our sacred encounter with the Divine. Our deepest yearning as human beings is to feel God’s presence, and we are prepared to react with joy to the momentous, the miracles, that which trumpets loudly like the shofar… To be awake to the still, small voice is to embrace the life that we are handed, to be truly present to life God has gifted us.
In a famous midrash, Rabbi Joshua meets Elijah the prophet and asks him: “When will the Mashiach come?” — “Go and ask him yourself” replies Elijah. “Where is he sitting?” — “At the entrance to the city “And by what sign may I recognize him?” — “He is sitting among the poor who are stricken with illness: all of whom untie and retie all the bandages over their sores at the same time, whereas he unties and reties each bandage separately, saying to himself, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.” So Rabbi Joshua went to the Mashiach and greeted him, saying, “Peace be upon you, Master and Teacher.” “Peace upon thee, O son of Levi,” he replied. “When will you come, Master?” asked he. “Today,” was his answer. On his return, Elijah asked, “What did he say to you?” Rabbi Joshua said: “He spoke falsely to me, he said that he would come today, but has not.” Elijah answered him, “When he told you, “Today” he was quoting from the verse that goes on to say “If you will hear to his voice.” Psalm 95:6 (B. Talmud Sanhedrin 98a)
The theology behind this beautiful midrash is profound. We are told that the power to bring peace and goodness to the world is within our hands, at our very fingertips… that the messiah is waiting to come to us today… if only we hear the still small voice of God. What does it mean to really hear God’s voice? The midrash addresses this too… the mashiach sits among the poor and the ill.
This summer was a difficult one for me. I spent many hours with one of our congregation who was dying of cancer with complications from diabetes. He was in excruciating pain, physical, emotional and spiritual. One evening I visited him before an emergency surgery. He lay there in a neck brace, half his body paralyzed, and deeply fearful. The surgeon visited to explain the operation. I will never forget the decency and humanity of that meeting. Though my friend was struggling to follow the conversation, this doctor looked him right in the eye, held his hand and re-explained the procedure two or three times. He said he would offer a prayer to God before starting the surgery and with that my friend felt peace, and hope. This was a busy man, a doctor, a surgeon, and he found the strength to stop, to quiet the world, to listen for the still small voice of God, and be present for a single individual, a patient, a person. I bless him for this, and I will never forget it.
It is so very difficult to be present for others. So often the noise of our emotions, our stress, our responsibilities, cover us like a tarp, dampening the small tap of the person in need. If we can still ourselves, quiet ourselves, we can hear that still small voice. God is in these small moments, the gifts. We may not succeed each and every time, but we can strive to be present for our families, our neighbors, our community… and with practice, we can hear more often, the still small voice of God.
The Book of Psalms sings: “Pitchu li sha’arey tzedek, Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and praise God. This is the gate of God, the Righteous may enter therein.” The Rabbis of the Talmud wondered when one would make such a request? This midrash is their answer. When a human being dies, the body is buried in the earth, the soul ascends to heaven. There, the soul is met by the angels who guard the gates of heaven.
The angels ask: What was your occupation in the world?
If you say, In the world, I was a lawyer or a doctor or an executive, in the world I amassed a great deal of power, they will tell you: that’s irrelevant here. But if the souls says, In the world, I fed the hungry; they will say, Zeh ha-sha’ar la’Adonai This is the gate of God, you who fed the hungry may enter.
If the soul says, In the world, I protected the vulnerable, they will say, This is the gate of God, you who protected the vulnerable may enter.
And so too for those care for the abandoned and those who performed acts of hesed, of kindness and love. You who opened your hand and your heart, and did hesed, you may enter God’s gate.
 Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer chapt 31